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Are housecats killers? Where do you stand on this issue

Posted by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:26 PM
  • 237 Replies

Do We Really Know That Cats Kill By The Billions? Not So Fast


On NBC Nightly News on Thursday evening, Brian Williams revealed there's a backlash underway to all the cat-killer headlines of this past week.

Those headlines reported a startling result from a new study in the journal Nature Communications: free-ranging domestic cats in the United States kill many billions of birds and small mammals per year, far more than previously thought. Many cat owners, Williams reported, took umbrage. He featured a photograph of a cat from Rhode Island named Magoo who had sent in to the NBC studios a protest note ("I am not a bird murderer; don't judge me"). Williams commented that the bird community has so far been silent, possibly because of its "decimated" numbers.

In fact, the situation is no laughing matter. Cats are hunters and other creatures do fall prey to them in significant numbers.

And yet there are serious reasons to suspect the reliability of the new, extreme cat-killer statistics.

The study at issue is a meta-analysis, an overarching review that aggregates data from previously published sources. The accuracy of meta-studies in health and medicine raises some concern, and it's easy to see why: for a meta-analysis to be solid, wise choices must be made among the available sources of information, and results that may vary wildly must be weighed fairly.

In the Nature Communications study, authors Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra needed to incorporate into their model the number of "un-owned cats" (such as stray, feral, and barn cats) in the U.S. As they note in an appendix to the article, "no empirically driven estimate of un-owned cat abundance exists for the contiguous U.S." Estimates that are available range from 20-120 million, with 60-100 million being the most commonly cited. In response to this huge uncertainty in the numbers, they performed mathematical calculations using what they feel to be a conservative figure (specifically, they "defined a uniform distribution with minimum and maximum of 30 and 80 million, respectively.")

At this juncture, the authors note that local analyses of cat numbers are "often conducted in areas with above average density." That is an obvious problem, yet when they estimated the proportion of owned cats with access to the outdoors (and thus to hunting), of eight sources of information, "three [were] based on nationwide pet-owner surveys and five based on research in individual study areas." Are the local studies representative of the national situation? For that matter, are the different owner surveys administered in a consistent enough manner to allow them to be aggregated?

Of course, the authors make statistical perturbations designed to increase the reliability of their conclusions, but it seems to me there's an unsettling degree of uncertainty in the study's key numbers.

It seems this way to others also.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, had this to say in response to the study: "It's virtually impossible to determine how many cats live outside, or how many spend some portion of the day outside. Loss, Will, and Marra have thrown out a provocative number for cat predation totals, and their piece has been published in a highly credible publication, but they admit the study has many deficiencies. We don't quarrel with the conclusion that the impact is big, but the numbers are informed guesswork."

If even animal advocates admit "the impact is big," why do the specific numbers matter so much? Because when people start thinking of cats primarily as murderers, it then becomes the cats' lives that may be seriously endangered. Of concern are not only extremists like the man in New Zealand who recently suggested a ban on pet cats; cat advocate organization Alley Cat Allies says that the study is so "biased" that it amounts to an invitation to "ramp up the mass killings of outdoor cats."

As a cat rescuer, I know such threats to outdoor cats are real. I've heard them. And as a cat person, I also care very much about the lives of birds and small mammals, taking steps in my own life to reduce our cats' predation upon them. The truth is that we do need to better understand the relationship between cats and the greater natural world.

Demonizing cats with shaky statistics, however, won't help us build the pillar of understanding required to strike a satisfying balance between the needs of cats and their supporters with the needs of wildlife facing a feline threat.

Should house cats be required to stay indoors? Or wear a bell?

North West Passage

by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:26 PM
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by Silver Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:28 PM
1 mom liked this

Yeah... I think that housecats do some major habitat damage. It bothers me.

by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:32 PM
7 moms liked this

 i'm pretty sure that all three of my cats would be incapable of actually killing ANYTHING - it would require them to actually stop lying about all day and night - my cats are not capable of killing their mouse toys, let alone a living creature that is activly trying to get away

by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:34 PM

 Hmmm. I basically know nothing about cats.

My grandkids have an adorable cat who just sits around the house and always cuddles up on my lap when I am there. I suppose if he was allowed to roam around he would kill a bird or two. He is always inside. They watch him carefully so he can't go out and kill something and drag it back home. Yukk.

by Milami on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:34 PM
1 mom liked this

 One of my cats is strictly indoors and has never killed anything. The other one is a stray we took in and he brings dead rabbits and mice to our door step. Well, he used to before we let him live in the garage and feed him daily. He's fat and lazy now.

by AllieCat on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:45 PM

I don't really know how I feel about cats being outside.  I don't like it but I do understand why some have outdoor cats.  As long as they come in now and then and are taken care off, it's all good, I guess.

I could never have outdoor cats but maybe that is because I am selfish.

We do have a lot of stray cats around here.  I feed them.  I love them.  I keep an eye on them.

There is one, in particular, who trusts me and lets me pet him/her.  If I could coax him/her inside, I would.  But I would fear that because he/she has been outdoors so long that he/she would not be  happy indoors.

by AllieCat on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:46 PM
1 mom liked this

My sisters cats come in and out.  They bring her presents often.  Birds, lizards and the like.  Honestly, I get the whole circle of life thing and well, I just don't know.  It isn't as if they are killing to eat, to survive.  Kind of bothers me, honestly.

by Silver Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:53 PM
11 moms liked this

Cats are predators ~ and obligate carnivores. That is something that I didn't see noted in this study. They are designed to eat meat only, and yes, cats will kill birds. They also kill rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, moles, voles, etc. when they are left to fend for themselves. Large cats kill larger animals, which no one seems to question. If the owner of a housecat/s dies and stops feeding them, the cats would eat the owner ... just a fact. Many dogs would as well.

The single biggest killer of birds and other small wildlife is still humans. Whether its the pesticides they spray on their gardens and fruit trees (and the large supply/factory farms that sell produce may be the worst, but EVERY homeowner that uses them contributes), the lawn chemicals everyone sprays and tills in so they have the greenest grass on the block, the chemicals from vehicles (along with the exhaust), the household cleaners and prescription meds that end up in the water supply, along with all the industrial chemicals are by far a worse problem than feral cats. Humans have a million excuses for all the poison they spew into the environment ... cats are just eating.

Yes, cats will 'play' with prey animals prior to eating them. Some who are getting fed by a human will kill them and bring home a present (if they are left to run around outside) and not eat it. The instinct is there, even if they have no real need (although given the poor quality and ingredients in most cat food, they would be healthier if they ate the bird or mouse).

My cats have access to the house and my bunny barn, but not the 'outdoors'. My bunny barn consists of two 10x10 dog kennels joined together, a wire floor and ceiling, covered by a tin roof. Lots of fresh air and sunshine, but it is predator proof unless a bear wants to get in. The cats and the rabbits are safe. I feed my cats a raw diet of rabbit, chicken, duck, and turkey meat as well. No ground up grain soaked and coated in rancid fat ... they eat what they were designed and evolved to eat and thrive on.

One last thing to consider is that the reason there are feral cat colonies all over the US is because so many people either boot them out the back door and abandon them, people won't spay/neuter, and are generally irresponsible. TNR is the easiest way to control it, but that takes dedication and most people spend their own money to make it happen. Unfortunately, the irresponsible humans dump pets faster than most of the responsible ones can keep up with. I don't blame the cats, I blame humans (the irresponsible ones). I'd rather get rid of the humans than the cats in most cases.

by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 2:58 PM
3 moms liked this

They are killing to support their family (the people the cat owns)

Quoting FromAtoZ:

My sisters cats come in and out.  They bring her presents often.  Birds, lizards and the like.  Honestly, I get the whole circle of life thing and well, I just don't know.  It isn't as if they are killing to eat, to survive.  Kind of bothers me, honestly.

by Bronze Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 3:04 PM
My cats are indoor cats and we live in an area where we get mice in the winter, they are not murderers, they are doing what cats do, I do agree with a previous poster that it is our (humans) fault that there arw so many cats. We only got our 2 cats 5 years ago due to my MIL taking in a pregnant cat, had a litter of 5 and got out and had 5 more, she got kicked out of her home and those cats had to get sent to a shelter and probably killed the same day. She has a new place and 4 new cats, my kids can't visit since the males spray everywhere.
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by Ruby Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 3:18 PM
1 mom liked this

We have three cats and one reason why is we live in the a wooded area - they keep the unwelcome critters away from the house.  That's one reason why people want cats.

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