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The Dangers and Risks for Outdoor Cats

By Jennifer Viegas

The Dangers and Risks for Outdoor Cats

The Humane Society of the United States supports indoor-only living for cats, but some owners remain convinced that life in the “great” outdoors can be beneficial. A new study on the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats solves the mystery. One message is clear: Living outdoors poses countless threats to cats. Here, learn why the life expectancy for outdoor cats is shortened by about 10 years versus that of indoor-only house cats.

Roaming Over Widespread Territories
Richard Warner, an emeritus professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues conducted the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Using radio transmitters and other high-tech equipment, the researchers tracked every move of 42 owned and unowned cats living at the southern edge of Champaign and Urbana, neighboring cities in Central Illinois.

As anticipated, feral cats had larger territories than the pet cats and were more active throughout the year. Even the researchers, however, were surprised by one mixed breed male, which had a home range of 1,351 acres, the largest tract of all cats tracked.

“That particular male cat was not getting food from humans, to my knowledge, but somehow it survived out there amidst coyotes and foxes,” says co-author Jeff Horn. “It crossed every street in the area where it was trapped. [It navigated] stoplights and parking lots.”

The average home range for pet cats was 4.9 acres, but as Horn says, “That’s a lot of backyards.” They ran, stalked prey, slept, rested and often encountered feral cats looking to establish dominance over an area. For example, each morning during the study, one feral cat waited for a particular pet feline to emerge in its garden. The feral animal would then attempt to chase away the house cat.

Dangerous Encounters
All outdoor cats can encounter various wildlife, in addition to the viruses and illnesses harbored by both feral cats and other species.

"For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread primarily by cats, may cause neurological, reproductive and even respiratory problems in humans, cats and wildlife, depending on the species affected," says co-author Nohra Mateus-Pinilla of the Illinois Natural History Survey. “Rabies, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus are also of concern to pet owners whose cats encounter other cats outdoors. Vaccination of pet cats will reduce but not eliminate the threat of disease transmission.”

Warner agrees. “Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were other cats and disease, and both of these leading causes of death are sitting here waiting for these owned cats outdoors.” This concern about disease doesn’t even take into account other threats, such as ingesting poisons, getting hit by a car, running into neighbors who hate cats and more.

The Solution
Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program at the Humane Society of the United States, admits that in a perfect world, cats would be able enjoy the exercise, fresh air, sights, smells and sounds of the outdoors. The answers then are to help provide your cat with related experiences inside, or to fully control your pet’s time outdoors. Goldfarb suggests following these four steps:

  • If possible, train your cat to tolerate a leash. Your cat would still be exposed to germs, but at least many of the other dangers would be eliminated. Up-to-date vaccinations are critical.
  • Set up an indoor-outdoor enclosure where your pet is protected, such as by screens. Make sure proper shade and water are provided. Supervise your cat.
  • Cats love to climb, so establish vertical space for them in your home. You can get creative with cat trees, secure dedicated shelving or other cat-friendly items.
  • Most importantly, spend daily time interacting with your cats, whether that involves playing, training or just sitting on the couch with them.

Goldfarb urges owners not to buy into the stereotype that cats are somehow loners. They love receiving attention and hanging out with their owners. Just like a satisfied human mate, a healthy and content cat will easily let go of its roaming ways in exchange for a better, safer life indoors with you.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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Posted on October 19, 2011

Thankfully don't live near woodsman says: Wow! Cat hater, thankfully I do not live near you, I agree there are too many cats we have NTR some local Felines and taken kittens to adoption agencies that were breed to these animals, but to shoot know there is also a huge problem with the overpopulation of humans in this world....maybe certain humans should be NTR ! Ps I have two indoor ( private 2nd story outside deck) cats that are adopted, thankfully they escaped the gun!

Posted on September 17, 2011

meredith monahan says: I got my cat at a one had any info on her background..she came home wtih me after being fixed and promptly hid away under furniture for several weeks..she then escaped through a window I was cleaning and stayed out for 10 days in a very cold, snowy winter...she returned and has been my dear friend ever since..however...she MUST go out..she was and is still a bit feral..I've seen her chase a fox out of the backyard...she is savvy and smart enough to avoid problems...I know she's exposed to other problems but keeping her indoors would be criminal...she loves to hunt and to observe other fact..I've trained her NOT to attack birds and she has been excellent as a bird watcher instead. I still worry but what can I do?

Posted on August 7, 2011

TexasKat says: Woodsman said: Shooting cats is perfectly legal where I live, and is even a more humane method when done right than terrorizing trapping and animal-shelter methods. "When done right" would be the key words here. If you live in a rural area, and it's your land, and you can kill each cat swiftly, painlessly, and without failing only to leave the cat wandering in agony, and you know for certain that the cat you're shooting is not someone's pet, then there's not much anyone can say, if you believe that your area needs to be rid of cats so desperately. (I'd say let others worry about their own land pests.) However there are alternatives, such as putting cat-repelling plants on your property to dissuade them from coming around. Some possibilities are Coleus canina (also works on dogs), lavender (also works on deer), or rue, or penny-royal. There are other cat repelling possibilities, but as opposed to water sprinklers or chicken wire, plants may be one of the safer, less intrusive methods for all parties involved, including other wildlife that you may want on your property, unlike cats. I have cats of my own, and no long ago I lived in an apartment above a family in which the father disliked cats. I happened to let my cats come and go out of my apartment regularly, and eventually one of them disappeared, never to return. It was rumored that the unhappy neighbor shot him with a BB gun, even though my cat always wore a red collar, with his name and my phone number on it. All I knew for certain was that the only thing that would keep my cat from coming home was dying. I'll never know if he died quickly and painlessly, or suffered from being injured, possibly by someone with poor aim. Since then our family has turned to an indoor-only cat lifestyle, and I sleep better at night knowing my cats are safe. Also, I have a family of 4 cats living in my immediate area, and recently put one of the females through a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. In the past 3 weeks, we've become so close with her that we've decided to keep her as one of our own, and she now wears a collar & tag. She still visits her mother and two siblings each night, and although we no longer live above the cat-hating neighbor, I still worry for the cats' well-being. With her family right outside the window each night, it may be hard to keep our newest cat inside for now, but it will have to be my goal if I want to ensure that I never re-live the pain of having a pet vanish, knowing I could have prevented it.

Posted on July 10, 2011

Woodsman says: Trapping and/or sterilizing and testing as a solution is a failed concept from Day-One. There are now about 150M feral-cats just in the USA, and 86M pet-cats (60M of which are still allowed to kill all wildlife), this means the population is already oversaturated for a long time. Nobody wants more than 86M cats for pets. There's only 311M people in the USA. 2 cats exist for every 3 people, from infant to senior. Thanks to those who outlawed destroying them in a more efficient, often more-humane, and more cost-effective manner by shooting them. While they also promoted their slow, random-chance, inefficient, and failed trapping programs. TNR people claim trap and kill is also a failure, and they'd be right. The problem has always been the trapping, slowing things down far below cats' breeding-rates. Keep in mind their exponential growth-rate. An average litter of 5 cats every 5-6 months (some say 3X's a year), breeding as early as 6-months of age. 2 can become 42 (up to 252) cats in only 1 year. No amount of trapping them (if you could even get them all to enter traps), nor valuable resources (transport and vet costs, etc.), man-hours, nor money will ever catch-up to their growth rate. You have an ecological, human-health, animal-welfare, and financial disaster on your hands, ALL thanks to cat-lovers and TNR-advocates. The faster that cats are destroyed the better. Even using guns and having all stray and feral cats shot-on-sight we might not be able to catch-up to their exponential growth. Not even until every last land animal (including humans) is gone from this earth, due to cats destroying the whole food-chain, with nothing but cannibalistic cats left walking the land. No exaggeration. Do the math. Ask any TNR group how many cats they've trapped. They haven't begun to scratch the surface of the problem THEY CAUSED and are only exacerbating with their blatant lies and deceptions. Using the birth-rate, guess how many feral-cats alone will be born just this year? Even when underestimating by 1/2 to be safe -- 1 BILLION 575 MILLION CATS. Got enough traps? Got enough centuries to trap them all while they're still breeding at exponential rates and decimating all wildlife? Trap-advocates cost you to lose the feral-cat-explosion race long ago. I alone was able to completely rid my land of all these INVASIVE-SPECIES feral-cats by shooting. Cats had completely decimated the native food-chain for ALL native wildlife, destroying not only all the prey that their cats disemboweled for play-toys, but all the predators that depended on that prey, starving all native predators to death as well. (Now there's REAL animal cruelty for you, caused by cat-lovers. They should all be in prisons for life.) Shooting cats is perfectly legal where I live, and is even a more humane method when done right than terrorizing trapping and animal-shelter methods. One moment they are happily stalking helpless animals to cruelly torture again, the next they are dead and don't even know what happened. Making your land 100% cat-free is something that cat advocates haven't been able to solve nation-wide for 30-40 years. On my land only 1 person in only 2 seasons was able to accomplish what they couldn't in decades. Why is that? It's time for you all to grow a spine and get enough strength-of-heart to do what needs to be done. If it's not legal where you live then use the "SSS Cat Management Program", for Shoot, Shovel, and Shut-Up. That's legal everywhere in the world. It may be the only thing that saves us from this ecological disaster caused by spineless and ignorant lawmakers, as well as all the heartless and disrespectful cat-advocates that they defend. Don't waste your time arguing with ignorant cat-lovers, as I stupidly tried to do for 15 years. Just do what needs to be done FIRST. Only later, after you've made your land 100% cat-free should you take your time to try to educate the ineducable, as I am attempting to do now.

Posted on June 8, 2012

Gabor says: Excellent post, Sparkle. There's a group in our city that is working to mganae the local feral groups and they've recently received some funding from our local shelter. They trap the kittens that they can and then adopt them out. There's also a vet clinic outside our city that now offers low cost spay/neuter and they work with this group too. It's a never-ending problem because so many humans don't respect four-legged Beings or understand that we're all One, and so just don't care. :-/

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