Should I Let My Cat Outdoors?
Updated: Apr 21
A beautiful native pine siskin lands on a tube style bird feeder filled with hulled sunflower seeds. It flashes yellow from it’s wings and tail as it flutters around the feeder. One of many pine siskins finding as much food as it can before old food supplies are covered with a blanket of winter snow. Two focused yellow eyes are watching this scene from the top of a nearby fence. They are focused on the small finch and ready to attack. Those yellow eyes belong to a domestic cat and the bell on the cat’s collar is the last thing this pine siskin will ever hear.
This is a situation that happens much too often. Domestic cats are the number one cause of human related deaths to songbirds in Canada.¹ Estimates of 1.3 – 4.0 billion birds annually fall victim to domestic cats per year in the United States² and as many as 350 million birds per year in Canada.³ Domestic cats have an instinct deep inside them to hunt birds; they don’t hunt them for food, they kill them out of instinct. Unfortunately native, often declining bird species fall victim to cats. As well, cats do not hunt weak or sick individuals; healthy breeding adults fall pray as often as young, old, or sick birds. The impact on bird populations is huge and very real. It is not something that we should be tolerant of when parts of the solution are so easy and so obvious like keeping pet cats indoors.
Outdoor cats can cause other problems in the neighbourhood as well. Cats will urinate and defecate in yards and gardens, cause damage to property, and stress out other indoor cats, even creating undesirable behaviours in these indoor cats as a consequence of the stress. As well, cats kill many other small animals including mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The death toll for mammals has been estimated in the United States alone as 6.3 – 22.3 billion.⁴
Keeping cats indoors is also beneficial to the cat itself. Anthropomorphizing cats and assuming that they are like us (prefer variety in their diet, are happier exploring new territory, etc.) causes us to draw incorrect conclusions. A domestic cat will live a perfectly happy life as an indoor cat as long as it is given the proper stimulation and outlets for natural behaviours such as scratching and defecating. There are less predators; less chance of contracting disease; less chance of human caused accidents, abuse, and poisoning; and they live a much longer, trouble-free life. In fact, outdoor cats live on average only 3 years while indoor cats live an average of 12 to 18 years according to a 2013 study.⁵ That difference is immense and should alone convince cat owners to keep their cat indoors where they are safe.
Many Canadian cities have adopted policies to ban outdoor cats. The city of Guelph is banning outdoor cats within 5 years, the city of Red Deer does not allow house cats to ‘run at large’, and domestic cats in Oakville are not allowed to roam outdoors. Even in Edmonton, outdoor domestic cats are not allowed on a neighbour’s property without permission with a $100 fine for ‘at-large’ cats. Many other cities, however, have very loose cat bylaws or, like in the case of my local city of St. Albert, no cat bylaw at all.
A large part of the problem of domestic cats impacting wildlife and ecosystems can be prevented by owners simply keeping their cat indoors. So if you are a cat owner, become a part of the solution and ask yourself the question, “Should I let my cat outdoors?”
1. Calvert, A., Bishop, C., Elliot, R., Krebs, E., Kydd, T., Machtans, C., & Robertson, G. (2013). A synthesis of human-related avian mortality in Canada. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 8(2).
2. Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature communications, 4, 1396.
3. Blancher, P. (2013). Estimated number of birds killed by house cats (Felis catus) in Canada. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 8(2).
4. Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature communications, 4, 1396.
5. Loyd, K. A. T., Hernandez, S. M., Abernathy, K. J., Shock, B. C., & Marshall, G. J. (2013). Risk behaviours exhibited by free-roaming cats in a suburban US town. Veterinary Record, vetrec-2012.