Lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, and leopards are the main cats that wildlife researchers are passionately driven to study. Their status as apex predators with enormous toe beans undoubtedly contribute to making them the focus of countless research and conservation efforts. Big cats even appear in ancient folklore. But what about the much smaller, yet fierce, nine-lived outdoor domestic cat? With more than thirty million households in the U.S. alone owning pet cats, there is ample opportunity to fulfill every curiosity about these animals through research.
As a graduate student in the sciences, I have encountered graduate students in wildlife conservation who study outdoor cats and can report that public outreach is a source of strife for them. One of the main issues studied by cat experts is their impact on the natural environment through predation. Communicating less than positive results to the public brings about disdain for a few reasons, but mainly because people love their cats.
Cat owners, such as myself, want to make their cats happy. Some cats are insistent upon time outdoors and it is hard not to give in when the frantic meowing starts. But research shows that outdoor cats can kill wildlife around twice per week, and sometimes it isn’t even for consumption. Outdoor cat owners are not always aware of their cat’s predilection for wild food because cats do not always bring their prizes home. The list of preferred outdoor cat snacks is varied, including reptiles (e.g., lizards), mammals (e.g., voles), and invertebrates (e.g., bugs), but also includes species of conservation concern. For instance, a survey-based study done on outdoor cats in Michigan found that they preyed on the Eastern Bluebird and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which are rare in the area or use it for breeding.
Part of the answer to the conflict between outdoor cat owners and concerned researchers could involve working together to reveal individual cat behaviors with kitty cameras. A study published in Biological Conservation monitored fifty-five cats for approximately one week with breakaway collar-mounted cameras near Athens, Georgia to document their predation habits. Unlike other studies which relied on owner surveys, the kitty camera was able to capture hunts that occurred away from home, and took pressure off owners to identify prey.
Results showed that cats would regularly practice hunting behaviors, but wouldn’t always go in for the kill. Stalking behavior was displayed within 15 hours of monitoring for most cats. Almost half of all cats were observed hunting, but only sixteen successfully caught and killed prey during the week of monitoring. Those sixteen cats caught and consumed a variety of outdoor snacks, with anoles being one of the most popular. Only one “pest” (a house mouse) was caught by a cat during the course of the study. One totally unexpected dinner of choice for outdoor house cats in Georgia was snake. The results of the study suggest that outdoor cat owners and scientists using survey-based methods are likely underestimating how skilled outdoor cats really are at predation, because they aren’t factoring in predation behavior away from the house.
“Though it’s true that it’s much easier for your cat to get enrichment outside, it’s still possible for a cat to live as happy of a life indoors without all the risks.”DR. GRAHAM, CHIEF VETERINARIAN AT ANIMAL HUMANE SOCIETY
But where do the cat owners stand in all of this? How do they feel when they learn about the impact of their cat on wildlife, and therefore the natural environment? An article in Research Communications explains that most cat owners are “concerned protectors”, “freedom defenders”, or “tolerant guardians”, at least according to a survey in the United Kingdom.
Concerned protectors worry about outdoor cats getting lost, stolen, or killed. They value the safety of indoors but do not care about hunting behaviors. Freedom defenders are completely the opposite, opposing any restrictions on outdoor cats or their roaming. They believe hunting is healthy and controls rodent populations. Finally, tolerant guardians are unsure of how to limit their outdoor cat’s hunting behavior, but believe the benefits of roaming are worth the risks for their cats. They don’t particularly like their cat’s preference for wild food because they love wildlife, but believe it is part of cat ownership.
The study authors believed that guidance for outdoor cat owners on safety risks (i.e., shorter life expectancy) and how to reduce wildlife killing for their pets would be more effective than regulation and enforcement. One way to protect at-risk wildlife is managed outdoor time (e.g., no cats outside after dark). This can also help people identify lost or abandoned kitties! Another way is offering more indoor enrichment, both physical (e.g., wand toys) and mental (e.g., squirrel videos, window seats), which can allow cats to make a positive association with their indoor space. Changing nutrition and feeding routines to suit the cat might help reduce hunting behavior as well (i.e., is kitty fulfilling a craving?). Finally, the authors suggest that breeders select parents with reduced hunting and roaming tendencies (i.e., is your cat actually a bobcat?). I hope these tips offer some insight into the life of an outdoor cat. I know I learned a thing or two!
Thanks for reading.