Blind love for cats is killing our songbirds

By Tracy Brighten

As cat ownership soars, we need a radical change in attitude to save mammals and songbirds from cats’ claws

Cat whiskers

Despite evidence from camera traps and Cat Tracker devices showing predatory behaviour, cat owners tend to describe their pets as too slow or too gentle to harm wildlife.

But Kitty is equally at home stalking wildlife as she is sleeping on our lap.

As human populations and domestic cat ownership explode, especially in urban areas, more small mammals and birds fall prey. When breeding can’t keep pace with predation, species numbers decline. Well-fed domestic cats might even be compared to trophy hunters in the sense they aren’t hunting for food.

Wildlife deaths from cat predation

In the U.S., a study estimated that the deaths of 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually were caused by free-ranging domestic cats. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, around 95 million cats lived in 30 per cent of American households in 2012.

In New Zealand, a 2010 pet survey by WSPA estimated a cat population of 1.3 million, and a study led Dr Yolanda van Heezik found the average number of prey brought back per year was 13, bearing in mind that cats don’t always bring their prey home.

The UK Mammal Society estimates 275 million prey items are caught each year and 55 million of these are birds. Bird species most frequently killed are house sparrows, blue tits, blackbirds, song thrush and starlings.

Cat with sparrow

Domestic cat with house sparrow trophy

Call for change in attitude

Naturalist, wildlife campaigner, pet owner and TV presenter Chris Packham believes we need to keep wildlife safe as well as our pets. “Both cats and dogs have the potential to damage our wildlife—why do we allow dogs on to nature reserves… And cat owners can help by keeping their pets indoors at night,” he told BBC’s Radio Times.

If owners were less defensive about their feline’s right to roam, we could enjoy cats and wildlife.

There are already constraints on keeping dogs as pets. In countries where dogs must be registered and aren’t allowed to roam, why should cats be an exception? Cats pose a risk to people as well as to wildlife.

Cats transmit toxoplasma parasite

We don’t need to be protected from cats in the sense of being attacked, but cats can transmit the toxoplasma gondii parasite in their faeces. This parasite causes toxoplasmosis, which can be harmful to children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Worldwide, over 6 million people have been infected with toxoplasmosis, which can cause retinal infection and blindness, and be life-threatening in people with compromised immune systems.

Toxoplasma infection has also been identified in marine mammals, at risk when feeding in estuaries and coastal waters contaminated by domestic or feral cat faeces.

Pets are members of the family

It’s understandable that owners are concerned their pets may become bored indoors, although cats can live happily inside with proper care. People think of pets as members of their family, arguing that we wouldn’t lock up our children. But in areas of heavy traffic, we keep our children safe and we don’t let our teenagers stay out all night with no idea what they’re up to. The bird and small mammal death toll in highly populated areas shows what our feline friends get up to.

Cats prey on rabbits

Cats prey on small mammals such as rabbits

Owners say their cats are behaving naturally in catching prey. This may well be true, but domestic cats aren’t wild cats. When we keep animals as pets, we automatically restrict their natural behaviour. If we really want to leave animals to behave naturally, then we shouldn’t keep them as pets.

People like birds too

Owners are understandably upset if a neighbour threatens to harm their cat. But some people find it distressing to watch a garden bird chased and ravaged by a cat, especially if they’ve put food and water out. There’s a feeling of responsibility for the welfare of those birds, and affection too.

How can cat owners help wildlife?
  • Catios and collars: cool for cats and wildlife reviews some novel ideas on how to protect cats and wildlife for owners who prefer to give their cat some outdoor time.
  • Spaying and neutering roaming cats before four months of age will slow the rise in cat numbers and give wildlife a chance. Native species haven’t evolved to take on this fast breeding non-native predator.
  • For wildlife enthusiasts who want a cat-free garden, Bob Taylor’s Cats Away blog offers cruelty-free tips to keep neighbours’ cats at bay.

If cat owners and wildlife conservationists can understand each other’s viewpoint and work together, we can stop cats silencing our songbirds.

Post update December 18, 2018:
A report published in Biological Invasions responds to the emotive and misleading criticism by cat protection groups that has thrown doubt on scientific studies and influenced policymaking in the U.S. In democratic countries, we cannot allow vested interests to influence or control policy, which must be in the national and global interest.

Post update April 20, 2019:
The University of Exeter’s Wildlife Science group is conducting research funded by conservation charity Songbird Survival and working with cat owners to find the best ways of reducing cat predation on wildlife. Their research so far has found that many owners want to stop their cats hunting wildlife but see it as a natural behaviour outside their control. Researchers are looking at practical, evidence-based ways owners can help reduce cat predation on wildlife. You can read about the study here. If you have a cat and live in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Bristol or Dorset and would like to take part in the project, you can find out more and sign up here!

Image credit:

Plya the cat by David Corby on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cat eating house sparrow by Mark Marek on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Out hunting tomcat with prey by Eddie Van 3000 on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)