COMMENTARY BY DR. DAVE SAMUEL
If you’ve been a regular reader of my column over the years, then you know I’m not a fan of house cats that run around outside. They can be cats that live in and around a home. They can be stray cats that someone dumped. Or they can be feral cats that have no real home but survive on their own. Feral cats once were someone’s pet, but now live on their own in the wild. Some feral cats get no human food. Other feral cats visit homes where people put out food for them. However, for the most part, all feral cats eat wildlife, and some exist on wildlife.
Research varies on how many wild birds cats eat, but several journal articles state that cats may kill 2.4 billion birds a year in the United States. That sounds a bit high to me, but the point is that house cats, strays, and feral cats hammer our songbird populations.
They kill threatened bird species, yet no clamor from the public. The probable reason is that humans have always had a close relationship with cats. They have a status that gives them priority over wildlife. Don=t get me wrong. I like cats. Some of my best friends own cats, and they are nice pets. My relatives own cats. Millions of people, nice people, own cats. When in the home, they pose no problems for birds. But when left to roam outdoors we have a problem because they eat birds and other small critters. Lots of them. The welfare of native wildlife takes a hit when cats become feral.
A study in suburban Washington, D.C. showed that where there are lots of outdoor pet cats, 79% of catbird nestlings and juveniles died, and cats were the main predator. In Florida, cats accounted for 70% of all the mockingbird egg and nestling predation. On some islands, studies showed that cats eliminated out certain bird species. Gone.
Note, I’m not down on house cats. Even though they eat wild songbirds, people are not giving up their cats. This brings me to a possible partial solution. I found a study done in the United Kingdom that I believe all cat owners will find interesting. It showed that if you feed your cat a diet that is heavy in meat, AND if you play with your cat with one of those bird feather toys, OR if you use a brightly multi-colored BirdsBeSafe collar, your cat will kill less wildlife when outside.
Interestingly in the United Kingdom, almost all pet cats spend most of the time outdoors, so their bird problem is worse than ours. In America, we’ve made progress in convincing cat owners to keep them inside. Not so in the United Kingdom. This fact is what led researchers there to do this study, to see if there are ways to minimize the killing of wildlife when the cats are outside.
They tried bells on cats to alert birds, they used BirdsBeSafe collars, and they used play behaviors. The researchers recruited 219 cat-owning households, including 355 cats. They had them try various methods over 12 weeks. Some fed their cat’s pet food high in meat protein. Others played with their cats using feather and mouse toys. Others fed their cats using puzzle ball feeders that challenged them to reach their food. Others put BirdsBeSafe collars on their cats.
When cats ate meat-rich food they brought home 36% fewer wild animals than a control group. When cat owners played with their cats using the toys for five to ten minutes a day, cats brought home 25% less wildlife. Puzzle feeders led to the cats bringing home more wildlife, so forget that option. Bells didn’t work either. However, the BirdsBeSafe collars reduced birds the cats brought home by 42%. BirdsBeSafe is a brightly colored collar that scares birds. You can buy them rather cheaply from Amazon and other places. In fact, the Birdbesafe website gives data from other studies that show a decrease in bird deaths by considerably more than 42% found in this study.
This doesn’t mean you should now start putting your cat outside. Keeping them inside is still the best option. The reality is that some cat owners will still want to put their cat outside on occasion. For those cat owners who are also bird lovers, it appears you have some options to feel less guilty about what your pet does. Sounds like a win-win to me.