By Stef Jenkinson, Raptor Program Manager
Cats. They may be one of man’s best friends… but they are not so friendly to nature. Many of us here at the American Bald Eagle Foundation go home to snuggle with our fluffy felines after a long workday, and we are big believers in the therapeutic benefits of kitty companionship. However, when cats spend time outside, they can have serious effects on the environment and the natural food chain. At ABEF we love our fluffy compatriots, but we take steps to lower the prey drives of those that live outside, and would love to share that information for anyone interested in doing the same.
It is important to clarify that we are not against cats in any way – we just understand that their instincts can be detrimental to the environment. Verbiage can be very important to the context of cat behavior in response to the world around them.Itis important to note that while a cat’s tendency to hunt is instinctual, it does NOT mean that their environmental impact is natural.
Domestic house cats were originally from Liberia and the Middle East, but cats have since been propagated far beyond their natural range and currently live worldwide. Ecosystems can be fragile and introducing a new predator into an environment has an impact on the whole ecosystem. So we do not fault cats for their instinctual reaction to want to hunt outdoors but rather try to balance their impact on the natural world.
This subject is important to us because although outdoor domestic cats rarely hunt birds of prey,they still have a strong impact on raptor populationsthroughout the United States due to competition for prey. Most outdoor cats continue to hunt even if they are fed in their homes, and that unbalanced hunting can decimate local populations of the species that raptors depend upon as a primary food sources.While we recognize that not all cats are suited for an indoor-only life (for example, cats that are adopted from being feral), even for those that do go outside there are several ways to reduce their environmental impact.
1. Birdsbesafe Cat Collars: Can these cats get any cuter? These collars might look silly, but they actually serve a useful purpose. Cats typically have excellent camouflage, but the bright colors and patterns of these colors make cats much more visible to potential prey. Studies have shown that these can reduce the number of birds caught by up to 87%. These collars also have a reflective strip on them, which increases visibility at night.
To view more details on birdsbesafe collars or to view the study on birdsbesafe collar effectiveness please go to: https://www.birdsbesafe.com/
2. Bells: Putting a bell on your cat when it goes outside can be a good way to alert other animals to your cat’s location. However, we advise using caution if keeping a bell on your cat permanently, as questions have been raised whether there may be detrimental long-term psychological effects to cats wearing bells at all times. Currently there is no evidence confirming this theory.
1. Solid Fence: The slick siding of metal and some other fencing materials makes it very difficult for cats to climb. More and more metal fences are being made in pretty, decorative ways. They are a great way to keep your fluffy friend within your yard and limit the trouble they can get into.
2. Catios & Cat Gardens: A wonderful and popular trends is placing cats in a “catio” or “cat garden” so they can get the stimulation of being outdoors, but still be kept safe inside of fencing. There are many types of catios with many different designs. This website is a great resource for catio designs: https://catiospaces.com/
3. Invisible Fence: There is a lot of controversy over invisible fences. These fences have two parts: one that attaches to your pet’s collar, and one that surrounds the perimeter of the yard. Once the cat reaches the perimeter, it hears a noise, and then if it continues towards the perimeter of the yard it will get a small electric shock. This is designed to keep pets within your yard without having a physical blocking barrier.
As a facility we focus on positive operant conditioning so we cannot speak to the effectiveness of negative reinforcement techniques such as these. But we understand that at times people may need to use this as a last resort option. If you are considering this possibility, please make sure you are well informed of the positive and negative effects of training this way.
This is one veterinarian’s take on electric fence use with pets including a list of variables to take into consideration before proceeding with the installation of an electric fence: http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/invisible-fences-one-vets-take-on-these-electric-correction-devices
This is an article about the findings of a scientific study performed in the UK to determine what effects electric fences have on a cat’s mentality: https://www.dogwatch.com/dogwatch-blog/new-uk-study-impact-hidden-fences-cats/
This an example of the type of fence that you could purchase: https://www.amazon.com/PetSafe-Premium-In-Ground-Cat-Fence/dp/B000TZ8SFU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1506035201&sr=8-2&keywords=cat+invisible+fence
If you already have a fence that your cats can climb over easily, fear not! There are many ways that people have adapted traditional fences in order to make them cat proof.
- Wall Spikes: These types of spikes are mounted on top of existing fences. They are not sharp enough to injure any animals, but they make climbing over your fence very difficult. This keeps your cat in your yard, and out of trouble.
- Roller bars: Originally a DIY project designed to keep dogs inside your yard by not providing them a stable space to climb over, it has evolved to keep cats in as well. It also prevents wildlife from climbing in! One do-it-yourself guide to making them is right here: http://yoursassyself.com/roll-bar-fence-diy-keep-your-pets-in-others-out/
Ways to be mindful:
- Spay/Neuter your cats: One of the largest issues in wildlife management today is that there is a large population of feral cats living permanently in the wild. These feral cats do a lot of damage to wildlife and are also carriers of disease. If you choose to have an outdoor cat, you should consider spaying or neutering your animal to not perpetuate the amount of feral cats that there are currently in the world.
- Wildlife Feeders: Bird feeders can be a delightful way to connect to the natural world around you. However, when you have an outdoor cat they effectively create a buffet for the cat. It is important to realize that when you put up bird feeders, you are the steward to the wild that is responsible for the birds that are drawn to your feeder. This includes making sure the feeders stay clean, making sure that you are not baiting unwanted wildlife (like bears), and making sure that the area is safe as it can be. Unfortunately, having an outdoor cat does not make a backyard feeder a safe place for birds, so we recommend viewing feathered wildlife elsewhere if you have an outdoor cat.
- CatTV: One attempt to reduce predatory instinct is to create another outlet for your cat’s predatory instincts. One of those outlets can be Cat TV. Cat TV is a style of programming that shows pictures of typical “prey” species moving across the screen.
- Playtime/Offering Natural Enrichment: Regular playtimes withyour cat can reduce their stress and boredom while also creating opportunities to bond with their owner and get regular exercise. No studies have linked increased playtime for cats to less predatory behavior outside, but it has been proven that offering enrichment can drastically increase the health of your cat and create an environment where your cat is less bored. All of this has the potential to be able to lessen the impact of your cat on the wild.
Here is a great resource for types of enrichment for cats: https://bestfriends.org/resources/cat-enrichment