The Evil of the Outdoor House Cat
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2014
My latest for The New York Times:
Once upon a time I had a cat named Lucky, and the name fit. She turned up on our doorstep as a stray and stayed with us for 10 years, until her rather gruesome demise. (More about that later.) I liked her because she was a free spirit, and a survivor, going out for two, three, even five days, in all seasons. She’d show up when it suited her, waiting in the dark before dawn till I came downstairs and turned on my desk lamp. Then she’d make her presence known by rising up on her hind legs and gently scratching with her forepaws on my window.
Sometimes, without stopping to say hello, she’d leave us tattered offerings, with little starbursts of coagulated blood, on the front walk. The birds were disturbing, the moles and deer mice not so much.
Jane, the older woman who lived two doors down, mentioned that Lucky sometimes lurked near her bird feeder, but she didn’t seem to think much of it, and neither did we. We put a bell on Lucky, but it didn’t last a week before she shed it in some bush.
If all this sounds lackadaisical, particularly in someone who writes about wildlife, I should note that Lucky, who died in 2008, was our last outdoor cat.
We were about to become early adopters in the trend that is beginning to make outdoor cats as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes in the office, or leaving dog droppings on the sidewalk.
What’s driving this trend is a growing sense of alarm about the dramatic decline in wildlife, and especially bird, populations, combined with a new awareness that cats bear a significant share of the blame.
The National Audubon Society tracks 20 common North American bird species — Eastern meadowlarks, field sparrows and the like — that are now in decline. Their numbers have dropped by 68 percent on average since 1967, because of a variety of factors.
In Britain, likewise, farmland bird populations have plummeted just since 1995, with turtle doves, for instance, down by 85 percent, cuckoos by 50 percent, and lapwings by 41 percent.
If these were stock market numbers, people would be leaping from buildings. But the peculiar thing about what biologists have called “the second Silent Spring” is that people tend not to hear it.
Like a lot of other cat owners, I used to think that when Lucky went outside and, now and then, killed an animal, she was “just doing what’s natural” for a cat. I was aware that cats have caused or contributed to the extinction of 33 species. But all of those species were living on islands and many had likely never seen a predator before early navigators introduced cats. The mainland nature around me was savvier than that, I figured, and had the scale to handle incidental killings by a few house cats.
But that is no longer true, if it ever was. Intensification of agriculture is eliminating millions of acres of habitat from the countryside. The relentless development of cities and suburbs has also squeezed out wildlife, and will squeeze harder over the next few decades. Urbanized land area in the Lower 48 states is on track to more than triple between 1990 and 2050, according to the United States Forest Service. In four Northeastern states, more than 60 percent of the total land area will be urban by midcentury, up from about 35 percent in 2000.
Wildlife increasingly hangs on in the margins, in parks and on forgotten scraps of land, which function, as it happens, a lot like islands.
And wildlife in the United States must share this land with a growing population of about 84 million owned cats, and anywhere from 30 to 80 million feral or stray cats. When all of them do “what’s natural” in a fragmented natural world, it adds up.
Using deliberately conservative assumptions, federal researchers recently estimated that free-ranging cats killed about 2.4 billion birds annually in the Lower 48 states, a substantial bite out of the total bird population. Outdoor cats also kill about 12.3 billion small mammals a year — not just the proverbial rats and mice but also chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels — and about 650 million reptiles and amphibians. In some cases, they are pushing endangered species toward extinction.
But here is the number that sticks in my mind: Letting my own cat, Lucky, outdoors may have consigned as many as 33 birds and dozens of mammals to death every year. If you have ever seen a cat toy with its victim, you know these are not quick, or pretty, or painless deaths. So you might expect animal welfare groups to be ardently campaigning against outdoor cats, and particularly against the care and feeding of feral or stray cats, which do most of the killing.
Instead, these groups have mainly addressed the feral cat problem with a strategy called T.N.R., which involves trapping cats, neutering and immunizing them, and then releasing them again. Scientific studies have generally found that T.N.R. is not particularly effective at reducing feral cat colonies. The practice has also come under attack from one animal welfare group: PETA has described T.N.R. as a way for shelters to look good to donors, because they don’t have to euthanize as many unwanted cats. But given the number of birds and small mammals the released cats go on to kill, I question whether the Humane Society and other T.N.R. backers should call themselves “animal welfare” groups anymore.
None of this may sound as if outdoor cats are on the way to becoming socially unacceptable, although when birders and cat lovers start shouting at each other about outdoor cats, it can seem as if we are en route to open warfare. But the change in attitudes toward smoking didn’t come easy, either. The smoking analogy is also more apt than may at first appear because outdoor cats, like secondhand smoke, also threaten the health of innocent human bystanders.
Cats are three to four times more likely than dogs to carry rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also share dozens of other parasites or infectious microbes with humans, including roundworms, hookworms, giardia and campylobacter. When cats live outdoors it is almost impossible to predict what they will bring home next. In Massachusetts and New York, for instance, cats recently turned up infected with a worm normally found in raccoons. One owner pulled four of them, about six inches long, through her cat’s skin, “which isn’t the best idea,” says one of the Cornell University scientists who reported the cases.
Most insidiously, outdoor cats are the primary hosts of toxoplasmosis, which is estimated to infect almost 30 percent of all humans worldwide. Toxoplasmosis produces lifelong parasitic cysts in the brain, and though it is generally asymptomatic it has been linked to neurological impairments, depression, blindness and birth defects. Even in asymptomatic individuals, the infection is associated with significant loss of memory in later life, according to a study last month in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. But I’m not really arguing that outdoor cats will become socially unacceptable because they are bad for humans. Rather, I think ardent cat lovers will eventually see that the multiple hazards of outdoor living are also terrible for cats.
And that brings me back to Lucky, and the night that her good name failed her. We never really found out what happened. But the other outdoor cat in the neighborhood, also a longtime survivor, died that same night. And the next morning a bobcat crossed right in front of my car and stopped in the middle of the road to fix me with a brazen I’m-walking-here-and-what-are-you-looking-at glower.
Most of Lucky turned up in the yard next door. Another piece was served up on the picnic table. A third, with a starburst of coagulated blood, appeared on the sidewalk, right where Lucky used to leave her offerings. I suppose it was a fitting end, in a live-by-the-sword sort of way, and for once, wildlife triumphed.
But I also know that I will never own an outdoor cat again.