Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma

Cats and Wildlife

A majority of households in America have pets. Usually, pets most preferred by people are cats and dogs. As in dog breeds, there is a wide variety in cat breeds as well. It is believed that the ancestors of the present cats first came to America many years ago. These ancestors came along with the European colonists. From the time when they first set foot, or rather, set paw, on the soil of America, cats have multiplied many times over. Currently, cats can be seen as semi-wild predators, strays as well as prized pets. Free-ranging cats are generally believed to adversely affect the other animals in the neighborhood, causing unrecorded, and usually unreported, mortalities of small animals. Herein, we shall look at the impact that free-ranging cats have on their immediate environment, and the steps that can be taken for addressing any problems that might arise.

Different Types Of Cats

There are many kinds of cats in the world. In addition to the domestic cat or felis catus, there is a feral cat or felis silvestris catus as well. Cats – both domestic cat and feral cat – are small, usually furry and carnivorous warm-bloodedmammals. There are more than 70 kinds of cats in the world currently. No consensus has been reached as to the accurate number of breeds due to the difference of opinion among the various associations in cataloging the cats. For example, while a particular association might list a specific breed, another association might consider the same cat to be another variation of an existing breed altogether.

Based on size, a general classification of cats would include:

1. Big Cats, such as –

  • Tiger
  • Lion
  • Cheetah
  • Jaguar
  • Leopard
  • Snow Leopard

2. Small Cats which include, among others –

  • Bobcat
  • Caracal
  • African Golden Cat
  • Canada Lynx
  • Fishing Cat
  • Ocelot
  • Kodkod
  • Jungle cat
  • Oncilla
  • Sand cat

The above-mentioned are some of the well-known types of cats.

How cats became domesticated?

The lineage of cats that be seen in households as pets can be traced to their wild ancestors, the felis silvestris or the African and European Wild Cat. The domestic cat that we see today, is now regarded as a completely different species, that of felis catus. Physically, the domestic cat has indeed much in common with their wild ancestors. The same, though much smaller in comparison.Even behavioral characteristics – such as predatory instincts – are common between the two.

As per recorded history, wild cats were domesticated for the first time around 2000 BC in Egypt.

Gradually, the domesticated cats of Egypt came to spread to other parts of the world. In all probability, this slow migration of the cats to other countries can be attributed to the fact that cats were worshipped in Ancient Egypt, hence, held too sacred to be exported. Nevertheless, the Greeks had managed to acquire some cats by 500 BC. Later, the Romans brought cats to Britain by 300 BC. Introduced in far-flung countries by colonists hailing from Europe, felis catus can now be found almost in all parts of the world.

How many cats are there in the United States?

Currently, the total number of cats in America is estimated to be somewhere around 70 million. This figure is reached by considering household cats alone, that is, cats who are pets. There is no account as such of other cats in America, such as those living in shelters, free-range cats or even semi-wild cats.If all these cats are also taken into consideration, the numbers will go up much higher. As cats usually tend to prefer being around humans, a majority of the feline population is concentrated in areas that have more people residing in them. Cats, in general, are usually seen to avoid far-off undeveloped regions.

The Legal Status Of Domestic Cats

Laws that deal specifically with cats depend upon the local government of that particular area. A person who provides food and looks after a cat is deemed to be legally responsible for the cat’s management and welfare as well. Following similar procedure as with other pets, a cat is to be seen as personal property if there is a collar or some other means of establishing ownership. If a domestic cat strays into someone else’s yard, the cat can be trapped. Once the cat has been safely trapped,the cat can then either be given back to the owner or handed over to the authorities. Many states in America have laws in place that require neutering as well as vaccination of domestic cats. As the laws concerning cats vary greatly from state to state, it is always better to get acquainted with the law in the place that you reside in.

What effects do domestic cats have on wildlife?

While predatory instincts are more commonly associated with big cats, even domestic cats can be quite a bane for small animals in their vicinity. Domestic cats that are habitual to free-ranging can adversely affect the population of birds and other small mammals in areas that they roam about. Research into the feeding habits of domestic cats that free-range a lot, reveals that about three-fourth of their diet is made up of rats, house mice and other so-called pests; while the other one-fourth is made up of birds and other small animals.

Studies have revealed that cats have a significant contribution in the extinction of certain species of birds. Ranked second to only habitat destruction, cats have been seen to have a great negative impact on the population of birds worldwide. The endangerment of bird species – such as, Piping Plovers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Least Terns – is said to have been caused primarily by free-ranging domestic cats. In addition to preying on small animals in the area, cats are also said to impact the food available for other predators as weasels and hawks.

Another way in which domestic cats affect wildlife in their area is by transmitting diseases to the wild animals they come into contact with while free-ranging. In the past, domestic cats are believed to have passed on feline leukemia to mountain lions. More recently, cats have been known to have infected the Florida Panther with an immune deficiency disease as well as feline distemper or feline panleukopenia. Some of the domestic cats that free-range can be carriers of diseases that can be threatening to humans, such as toxoplasmosis and rabies.

Domestic Cats Versus Native Predators

Though domesticated, cats still have the predatory instinct in them. While similar to wild predatory animals in many ways, cats differ from them in three respects –

  1. For a wild predator – such as foxes, coyotes or bobcats – threats posed by competition from other predators, being themselves prey to bigger animals and disease are quite real. The domestic cat, on the other hand, is safe from all these as people who keep cats as pets safeguard them from all such eventualities.
  2. Population of native predators is greatly affected by the availability of prey in the area. Domestic cats are provided food by their owners, hence, their dependence on prey for survival decreases to a great extent.
  3. In a bid to survive and thrive, territory is paramount to a native predator. The domestic cat, however, has no such issues with territory. Many a times, cats in any particular area have been seen to greatly outnumber all other predators combined. There are usually more free-ranging cats in many areas as compared to raccoons, foxes or even skunks.
  4. Domestic cats also differ from native predators in the fact that even if a cat has plenty of food at home, the cat might still hunt to satisfy its natural instinct. This is not so among the native predators. A native predator, usually, is not interested in prey when its hunger is satiated. A cat, on the other hand, can just as well kill out of mere curiosity.

While similar in many ways, there are also many behavioral factors that set the domestic cat apart from other native predators.

What You Can Do?

Free-ranging domestic cats can prove to be quite a menace if not controlled effectively. Some of the things that you can do in this regard are:

  • Neutering your cat is a good idea. Also encourage others that you might know to get their cats neutered as well.
  • As far as practically possible, try to keep your cat indoors. Staying within doors will greatly lessen the possibilities of spreading disease, reproducing unwantedly and preying on other wild animals.
  • Safeguard the small birds in your area. Bird feeders ought to be located in areas that do not offer cover or camouflage for a cat waiting in ambush.Similarly, to ensure safety of bird nests, place animal guards around the trunks of trees that grow in your yard
  • Do away with any garbage lying outside that might attract stray cats.
  • Do not feed any stray cat that wanders into your yard. If you offer a stray cat food, more are bound to follow eventually.
  • A domestic cat that is no longer wanted should never be released outside to fend for himself. In addition to being an inhuman way of dealing with a pet, this practice also tends to further add to the feline population of the area.
  • Only take in that number of cats which you can manage. Neutering and providing a proper diet makes domestic cats somewhat less inclined to free-range over long distances. If such well-fed and neutered cats do wander, they will try and stay close to home.

The above-mentioned are some of the ways in which cat population in an area can be controlled. Enlist the support of your neighborhood as well.

While popular house pets, cats can pose problems for other wild animals in the area if the cat population is not kept under control. Though domesticated, the cat is still a wild animal and ought to be treated with all due respect.