Is Your Garden a Place for Your Cat?
Statistics show that there are more than 77 million pet cats in the United States. A 1997 nationwide poll showed that only 35% of them are kept exclusively indoors, leaving the majority of domesticated cats to kill birds and other wildlife at least some of the time.
Many gardeners plant species of plants that attract birds to their garden. They also set up feeders to bring in an assortment of bird species so they can enjoy the sights and sounds of the various birds. Pet cats that are allowed to be outside during the day seriously jeopardize the safety of the birds that come into these gardens. Studies show that outdoor cats kill approximately 4 million birds in the United States every day.
While some people view cat predation of rodents as beneficial, native small mammals are important to maintaining biologically diverse ecosystems. Wildlife like field mice, shrews, and other rodents are also prey for owls, hawks and other small raptors.
Outdoor cats catch, but do not always kill, birds and small native mammals. They do so, not because they are hungry, but because they have a natural hunting instinct. Most birds, if not killed, will die due to infection caused by tears in their skin from cat claws and teeth. Cats carry bacteria in their claws and viruses in their mouths, some of which can be transmitted to their victims. Even if treatment is administered immediately, only 20% of victims survive the ordeal.
The Lindsay Wildlife Museum and Hospital in Walnut Creek treats over 5,000 native animals a year. 20% of these animals are cat caught. Most of these are birds caught during spring and summer when baby birds are learning to fly. The majority cannot be saved.
If you have an outdoor cat, not only should you consider the above reasons for making your cat an indoor cat. Here are some other reasons to do so. Outdoor cats face dangers such as: cars, poison, animal attacks, and traps. They can also acquire diseases from prey animals and other cats such as: feline leukemia virus, feline distemper, feline infectious peritonitis, feline immunodeficiency virus, and upper respiratory infections.
Then there are the diseases that humans can get from outdoor pet cats.
• Rabies - which cats can get by being in contact with rabid skunks, raccoons and foxes.
• Plague - carried by rodent fleas.
• Cat-scratch disease - transmitted from cat to cat by fleas. Over 90% of human cases are associated with either a scratch or bite from a cat.
• Toxoplasmosis - cats and people can get this from feces-contaminated soil or litter boxes. This can be a serious illness in children. Cats are the only animals in which the organism can complete its complex life cycle and be excreted in the feces.
• Roundworms - cats can contract this parasite from eating infected wildlife. People get it from handling infected feces.
It does take patience to make an outdoor cat into a happy and contented indoor cat, but it can be done. Provide a lot of stimulation with toys, perhaps a scratching post or even a cat ‘condo' and tons of affection. When we had three cats as part of our family, my husband built a screen enclosure alongside our home. It featured a grassy area, multi-level decks for them to climb, scratching posts, cozy box hideaways and a covered litter box. The three kitties spent all day outside safe and secure and could come and go from the house through a pet door. It was ideal for all.
Bringing birds into your garden is a wonderful treat for the eyes and ears. But keep them alive by making your cat a safe and healthy indoor pet. For more information on outdoor/indoor cats check out the American Bird Conservancy at: www.abcbirds.org
Carolee James is a long-time Master Gardener, California native plant gardener and bird protector.