Companion animal care is evolving. Gone are the days when it was normalized to tie dogs to trees in backyards or to give kittens away in cardboard boxes. Roaming cats are also quickly becoming less popular. Data shows us that young people are far less likely than older folks to allow their cats to roam. Concerns for cat safety and wildlife conservation are major driving forces behind this shift. It might seem cruel to revoke free-roaming access from a cat, but in the long run, the transition can be lifesaving.
Cats and Wildlife
Domestic cats have a shockingly tangible impact on native wildlife. They might be cute, but these deadly predators are listed by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the world’s most harmfulinvasive species. Being domesticated animals, cats do not have a place in any of the world’s ecosystems. This means that native wildlife species lack the evolutionary capabilities to escape domestic cats.
In fact, roaming cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds per year in the United States alone. Domestic cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 63 bird, mammal, and reptile species. Statistically, they remain one of the leading causes of global songbird decline. Countries with many flightless bird species, like New Zealand and Australia, see this effect even stronger.
Predation of birds isn’t the only way cats harm wildlife. Roaming cats, including pets, are highly susceptible to parasites and disease. Toxoplasmosis, an internal parasite spread through cat feces, is an ongoing cause of decline for the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal and several other species. Cats can spread illnesses such as FIV to wild felids, such as bobcats and mountain lions.
Domestic cats don’t kill for sustenance, they kill for fun. The insatiable hunger these animals have for native wildlife presents a serious threat to species already impacted by human activity.
Cat Safety and Longevity
Domestic cats face immeasurable dangers outdoors. Wildlife, loose dogs, diseases, parasites, animal cruelty, cars, and weather events can all threaten cats’ lives. The United States National Park Service states that 20% of urban coyote feces contain traces of cat remains. Cats and urban coyotes create a vicious cycle; every time a coyote finds a cat to eat, it reinforces the coyote’s choice to venture further into urban neighborhoods in search of easy prey. Cats are also some of the most common roadkill victims in the United States.
The expected lifespan for an indoor-outdoor cat is a dismal 2-7 years. To contrast, an indoor cat’s lifespan is 12-20 years. Bringing your cat indoors can help ensure that he or she lives a long and healthy life.
It’s true that many cats enjoy roaming outdoors. But in the same way that we don’t allow dogs to chase cars or children to eat candy for every meal, sometimes we have to make decisions for the well-being of those in our care.
Providing Safe Outdoor Access
Do you find it difficult to justify suddenly cutting a cat’s access to the outdoors? The good news is that you don’t have to! There are safe, humane ways to provide outdoor access for cats without risking their lives or harming wildlife.
A “catio” is a patio made just for cats. These outdoor enclosures provide cats with the opportunity to breathe fresh air, bask in the sun, and watch songbirds. For apartment dwellers, a catio can be as simple as a sturdy, enclosed hutch that hangs out of a window. For those with a yard, a catio can be an entire outdoor run that connects to a window or door to the house. An ideal catio contains vertical space for climbing and play, different surfaces and textures, and enrichment items. You can even fill your catio with cat-safe plants for your feline friend to enjoy.
Pop-up tents, enclosed playpens, and play tunnels can also provide safe outdoor time for a cat to enjoy. Be sure to use positive reinforcement through high-value treats when introducing these items to your cat. A playpen or pop-up tent can be introduced inside the house by giving the cat free access to the item, playing with the cat, and giving treats inside and around the item.
Leash Training at Any Age
A cat who can safely walk on a leash has access to a whole new world! If a cat can be harness trained and trained to love car rides, they can visit new places and experience a constantly changing environment.
Most people make the mistake of immediately forcing their cat into a harness with no preparation. This is a cause of stress to a cat and will create a permanent negative association.
Instead, you can try a method known as counter-conditioning. This is when a neutral stimulus (such as a harness) is paired with a positive stimulus (high-value treats) to create a positive association. Start with five-minute sessions two or three times per day. Hold the harness up so the cat can see it, and immediately mark the moment using a clicking sound or a short phrase such as “Yes!”. The cat will begin to associate the harness with treats.
When your cat is feeling completely comfortable with the training and clearly associates the harness with treats, you can then move to putting the harness on the cat for brief periods of time. Play with the cat and reward them heavily during this time. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and advance only when they are ready.
After you’ve successfully introduced the harness, you can start to walk your cat in areas they are already familiar with. As your cat advances in their training, you can take them on short trips to new, quiet places.
Enriching Your Cat’s Life
Ever heard the phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? Well, it isn’t true for dogs, and it isn’t true for cats, either. With patience and knowledge, you can teach any animal of any age new tricks!
By using a clicker or a simple phrase such as “yes!”, you can learn to mark and reward your cat for offering various behaviors. There are plenty of tutorials online for teaching simple tricks. Learning tricks will exercise your cat’s brain and might just tire them out even faster than physical exercise would. Plus, it’s an excellent way to bond with your cat and deepen your understanding of their body language.
Feather wands and string toys can help relieve some of your cat’s prey drive. You can bring out their killer instinct without actually killing any animals! Play is absolutely vital to a cat’s mental health, as an unfulfilled prey drive is a major source of frustration for many indoor cats.
Cat enrichment doesn’t have to be expensive. Want to really have some fun? Grab some spare boxes from a local grocery store, and build a cardboard castle to make your cat feel like royalty.
Hunting for food is another highly satisfying behavior for cats. Incorporating food puzzles into their feeding plan will help build your cat’s problem-solving skills and burn off extra mental energy.
How Will Your Cat Be Impacted?
Not so long ago, it was normalized for cats and dogs to roam the streets, reproduce freely and eat nothing but table scraps. Veterinary care was a luxury. But companion animal care is evolving. In many places, pets are beginning to be viewed as beloved family members whose care is a priority.
The more knowledge becomes available, the more people are beginning to change the standards by which they care for animals. Sometimes, we acquire new knowledge when an animal is already in our care. That doesn’t mean it’s too late to make a positive change. The right thing to do isn’t always easy! Like young children, animals don’t always understand why we make difficult decisions for them.
A change in routine can certainly be very stressful for an animal. With that being said, animals are incredibly resilient. The more enrichment and positive experiences you provide for your cat, the easier the transition will be for both of you.
The beginning of your cat’s transition away from roaming will likely be the toughest. Don’t be swayed by an initial rough patch. Allow plenty of extra time to spend engaging with your cat through play, training, and enrichment. By sticking it through, you’ll be saving wildlife and giving your cat a longer life!