The cat problem

Judging from this scene, it’s probably not a good idea for us to introduce another cat to our household.

And no, it’s not that there are two many pictures of them on Facebook. (There are, but that’s a discussion for another time.)  My husband and I have owned cats for over twenty years (2 different ones); they’ve always been kept inside, although the first one was briefly allowed to sit on the roof of the third floor apartment we had at the time.

It wasn’t until we bought out house that I noticed the rather large number of cats who were either free agents or had owners who let them loose in the neighborhood. We often find them skulking around our pond, begging near the front door or sometimes even trying to get matey with our cat (as shown above). The actual animals themselves don’t bother me that much—I feel sorry for the ones who seem hungry or neglected—but it has to be said; cats and gardening don’t mix. At all. While urban dogs are walked, supervised, and (mostly) picked up after, urban cats treat the world as their litter box. In my small garden, it can be very annoying, and recently, I’ve been trying different things to keep them out. First, there was a sonic device that didn’t seem to do much. I also have a movement-activated sprayer I may hook up this spring. Finally, I’ve thought of just trapping them and turning them in. (Thought of it, haven’t done it.)

The problem in Buffalo is serious enough that the city is actually convening a cat task force.  Animal advocates are suggesting that rounding up unowned cats and getting them spayed/neutered, then releasing them would be part of a solution. Personally, I think people should keep their pet cats indoors. And I became even more convinced of this after reading—as many of you must have—the recent reporting on how many birds cats kill per year. Depending on which study you read—here’s another one—it can be up to 4 billion a year, killed by a combination of feral and domesticated animals. That’s a lot of birds and there are even more small mammals. It’s enough to cause extinctions, according to a number of studies. This is not the natural way of things; basically, an invasive species has been translocated by humans worldwide with predictable results.

There’s nothing new about the data, but other than the trapping and neutering idea, no one has come up with a solution. Nobody wants to see species disappear; nobody wants to kill cats. I doubt the situation will be addressed in any serious way—but I hadn’t realized how big of a problem it was.


Oh yes—and as with everything, there is a funny way of looking at it!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’d add the dog problem. Tired of dog owners who think that my yard is their (leashed) dog’s bathroom. The pee kills the grass and, no, they don’t always clean up the poo. I love animals, but not all animal owners.

    • Seriously–at least cats partially bury their waste! I have stepped in mounds of dog doo a few times too many in my front yard, but I agree, cats should be kept indoors. If not for the birds, for the cats themselves. I cannot imagine having to deal with the disease and injuries an outdoor cat faces.

    • I have to add that if cats do not do the killing of the birds, the state then poisons them! This is true, which I found out just last year after reading a story about all the dead birds found in various parks, etc., in and around Indiana and other states. The state then admitted that they had poisoned them because of people complaining about too many messy birds! Which do you want, birds, cats, dogs, or something else, or total emptiness?

      There are too many feral cats where I live also, but the state should provide low cost or free neutering, or something along those lines, I believe.

  2. I recently adopted a cat that used to be an outdoor one. I feel sorry for him as he sits glued to a window or the patio door, watching birds, bunnies, and, during a recent warm spell, chipmunks cavort freely outside. But I attract those birds on purpose and don’t want to turn my bird feeders into a cat buffet. Hawk buffet, but not cat buffet. Fortunately, few cats run loose around here, so I don’t have your problem. Too bad cats kill indiscriminately – I would not mind fewer potato-eating voles and bluebird-house-nesting sparrows.

  3. OH, the many reasons to keep cats indoors! In my former neighborhood, cats were killed by cars, wildlife, and other cats. I used to let my cats outdoors until I realized the danger they were in and the harm they were causing the bird population.
    Now my indoor-only cats LOVE our screened-in porch, kill no birds, and don’t cost me a fortune in vet bills. But selfishly, most of all, I’m not worried sick about them.

  4. What a timely post! I, too, am an indoor cat owner, but having a problem with roaming outdoor cats. There are several that are hanging around outside my house menacing my cat through the windows and crying at my doors. I’m also concerned about them killing birds that visit my feeder and they’ve been leaving dead rodents outside to boot. The worst part is that they’re spraying on my plants and around the outside of my house! I wish there was a solution, but most people around me seem to think that it’s cruel not to leave their cats roam, even with it’s 0 degrees outside.

  5. There are either feral or “outdoor” cats roaming around my yard (I suspect both) and once I find dead birds, I get very scorched earth about it. I have a live trap, and I’m perfectly willing to trap a cat and take it to the pound. If it doesn’t have a collar or a microchip then the owners must not care enough about it to ensure its safety. (I am a cat owner, I have several, I love them all very much, they are strictly indoor and have chips in case they get out.)

    We have a huge feral cat problem locally. It’s a sad state of affairs that I cheer when I see the coyotes moving in because maybe they’ll cut down on the cat population. My boyfriend was involved in a trap-spay-release program for awhile, which did exactly nothing to reduce the population, and they tried VERY hard–I think that however good it is in theory, in practice it doesn’t do much to help.

    People mean well, everybody loves kitties, but seriously–dogs that kill chickens are treated as a serious menace, why do we let another species that kills vast quantities of feathered critters get a pass?

  6. In my back yard right now there are two piles of feathers where cats caught & killed birds. Not hawks, since these are in spots under cover where a hawk could not go. I resent cat owners allowing their pet to roam freely, killing wildlife & using my mulch or freshly-turned soil as a litterbox. I do clean up after my dog (and I have had to clean up numerous times after others who do not clean up after theirs), I keep her leashed when we go past the front door. Why can’t cat owners keep their pets indoors?

  7. I know some people let their cats outdoors becuase they think the cats would be miserable if they didn’t. That’s true of most cats who’ve already gotten used to the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt – it’s hard to suddenly restrict them to go along with it.
    But kitten-owners, now’s your chance to have a happy indoor cat, who’ll never particularly care about going out, if they’re anything like mine. But once they’re outdoors, they may never go back and can become destructive, and really good at sneaking out because that’s all they care about.

    • Listen to what Susan says! Friends who allow cats out, maybe because they were feral from kittenhood, or for whatever reason, will be whining to go out and coming in like they are kings without hands! They pick up things out there, get into fights, etc etc. We have so many feral cats that indoor cats will scrap with them once outside.

      Our cats are strictly indoor, and they are gentle and don’t whine at the door like those of our friends.

      Cat crap in the garden is relentless when you have 10 or more ferals using it for litter. Yes, they cover, but just enough that you don’t see it until its too late. Yowser, that stuff is nasty. What are those ferals eating? Not dry lumps like the indoor cats, but putrid wet stuff that won’t leave your senses soon enough. Plus they like to lay on your plants, yeah, right in the sunny spots. But also the shady ones.

      Cats are our #1 garden problem.

  8. Cats aren’t the only cause of dead birds and small animals. I wish people would get as worked up about pesticides and herbicides which not only harm wildlife but humans as well.

  9. Birds do it, cats do it, squirrels do it, worms do it, raccoons do it… grin… build a greenhouse if you want to control all the organics in your garden – smile.

    • But cat poop has pathogens that specifically can harm humans, especially fetuses. Worm poop is good for my plants; mammal poop is not. Squirrels & raccoons don’t specifically go where I’ll be digging/working/harvesting. And bird poop can be washed away – not too mention it’s less likely to have transferable diseases. And these are domesticated cats we’re talking about; the others have not been.

    • I personally love to garden with my cat, he has kept me well companioned whilst weeding wearily away. His appreciation of the “natural” world I have created in my garden is a great joy to behold for me! My nuetered and very domesticated beasty was too fat to catch anything! I’d say maybe 1 in 10 cats (on the generous side) are GOOD hunters. A bell or other seems to work fine. I like Jessika’s comments about good ID and information for your cat.
      I have developed some very effective cat & dog barriers that do not involve chemicals and noises etc (although the sprinkler actually sounds effective). I have developed physical barriers that do take a little learning curve and are very easy and simple once applied- I’m talking strips of fencing laid down for cats so they can’t scratch. No scatchy- No funny. They loose interest in your lettuce bed.
      Let’s not burn our little kitties at the stake here. A feral population is a problem is some areas.

  10. Besides the fact that a person should not have to deal in their own yard and garden with the waste of another person’s pet, there is the issue of toxoplasmosis, a disease passed to humans by handling cat feces. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable–I remember being told by my doctor to “get someone else to change the litter box” during my pregnancies. There is also recent evidence to strongly suggest a connection between toxoplasmosis and some psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

    On the topic of indoor cats, I live in a rural area and wanted cats originally for pest control in our barns. But when I adopted a couple of them, my vet strongly suggested keeping them indoors, not just for their health, but because cats are considered delicacies by the local coyotes. I didn’t listen, and within 2 months, the cats were gone. We adopted another cat a while later, and kept him indoors, but he eventually learned how to unlatch a living room window and get out (and back in) that way. It was charming and convenient, and hard to prevent, especially in summer. He disappeared a couple of months after that. No more cats for us! But our dogs do a pretty good job of rodent control, as it turns out.

  11. When my (yes, indoor/outdoor) cat died several years ago, I was invaded by neighborhood cats. The motion-detector sprinkler worked great — haven’t had any issues since. It was also great when I was teaching the dog not to eat the backyard chickens …

  12. Birds are prey items. That is how the system works. How many predators are there in the cities and suburbs these days? Snakes, raccoons, fox, weasels, bobcats, hawks and their kind? I’m sure that list should be much longer.

    I currently have three outdoor cats, They are very good mousers and vole eliminators and lousy bird catchers. On an annual basis more birds are killed flying into the windows of the house than all three cats combined ever catch.

    I propose windows in all buildings be outlawed. That would save more birds from needless death than keeping my cats inside all the time.

    The biggest threat to birds is the human caused destruction of habitat, not cats. The more we do to create habitat for birds the better they will do.

    Feral cats are a problem and I don’t have any objection with trapping them and putting them down. A feral cat’s life is going to be short and unpleasant. If folks prefer to neuter and release so be it.

    The best thing cat owners can do to help, whether they be indoors or out is have their cats neutered. Do not add to the population.

    I live in the forest where all the predators of birds still exist in significant numbers. That makes my cats a potential prey item. That is how the system works. It sucks, but I have to live with it.

    Those canid paw prints I saw in the snow today were too big to be a coyote, unless it was a big one. It was probably a hound dog. They have huge feet. I saw all the trucks down at the fried chicken, bait, gas, hardware, lottery and liars bench store this morning. But I do have predators and keep all the cats in at night when they are more likely to become someone else’s dinner.

  13. I garden. And I tried very very hard to keep indoor-only cats (we have three). However, one of our rescues, after being an indoor-only cat for three years, decided once we moved to our house a year and a half ago that he was an OUTDOOR CAT. And man, it wasn’t just an issue of us hardly being able to open a door without him streaking through our ankles. We could contain that. But he started protesting, and geez, is cat pee a vile, vile thing.

    So, though he terrifies me by being outside, he’s now outdoors and indoors.

    However, we didn’t want to anger our neighbors, many of whom also garden. I didn’t want to own THAT cat and then have my neighbors loathe me (as I loathed many owners of cats who used my garden beds as litter boxes). So, after going through three collars (Pushycat is VERY good at getting them off), we put a little harness on him, which he has NOT gotten off or been harmed by in the 8 months now we’ve had it on him.

    On the harness there are two tags. One has his name, our address and our phone number, as well as saying that he’s allowed to wander three blocks from home (we didn’t want unfamiliar neighbors calling out of worry who only lived 5 doors down). The other tag says to call if he’s being a pest (In other words, if he is annoying your cat, your dog, or your garden) and how to get him to stop following you (this social cat follows the mailman. no joke).

    Our neighbors, despite my “are you sure???” questioning, LOVE this cat. And, by having the tags, people seem to be a lot more comfortable with him. So far, no complains about him being in gardens. AND, his tags jingle together, which alert birds (hopefully) before he can catch them.

    And yes, he’s very much neutered.

  14. The study from the Smithsonian Study (which seems to be the one quoted in recent news articles) also says: “Unowned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality.” So if their facts are correct, the solution to this is to deal with the feral cat population. I donate to my local Please, if you are concerned about this new report and want to help, consider supporting your local organization that deals with feral cats. Yes, I do let my cat out and she catches and kills gophers. I consider this preferable to what many gardeners do in my area which is poison their gophers.

  15. People really should sit down and read these studies which say that cats kill so many: they are either purely statistical/mathematical models or they are based on incredibly small data sets (I’ve seen as small as 7 animals). One can’t read this latest paper that’s come out, only its abstract, and it ‘quantitatively estimate(s) mortality.’ Again, it ESTIMATES, not COUNTS real numbers. And it is true that cats (and pigs and rats and mongooses and goats and other animals) on islands contribute to extinction. But the forces of island biogeography are not applicable to larger ecosystems in general and are a red herring in this case.

    I also suggest you go to the kittycam researcher’s website (it’s quite fun to explore actually). This is her preliminary doctoral research and she’s quite careful NOT to make any sweeping claims that cats are destroying the environment. She DOES point out that a minority of cats hunt and even fewer catch things, hardly the mass murderers they’re made out to be.

    Why are we so eager to believe those who misrepresent this scanty evidence? I think it’s because we don’t like to know that the real bad guys in bringing down wildlife populations is US. Not only has suburban sprawl and big ag led to a decline habitat for all kinds of critters here, but ramped-up deforestation in South America has reduced wintertime habitat for migrants. And think, too, of the massive reduction/compromising of wetlands along avian flyways and coastal areas.

    Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

    • There is a pdf of the full text of the study–it is linked to from the Washington Post. There were enough studies (going back for decades) to justify a cause for concern. I didn’t link to all of them, thinking that interested readers would want to do their own searches.

    • It is always going to be estimates from extrapolations because they will never be able to count all the cats. Those extrapoloations just add error to the numbers. They don’t invalidate them completely. The fact that the numbers correlate with past studies lends credence tothe estimates.

  16. Don’t even get me started about cats.I used to always have about 2 cats at any given time but try moving into a home where the neighbor has at least 75 at all times.Totally unresponsible.

  17. No cat problem here. If they are not indoor cats, the coyotes get them. The range of coyotes has expanded greatly in the past few years and I wonder if a steady supply of fresh cat meat has contributed to that.

  18. A cat task force! I think all the members should get fake whiskers to wear and little caps with cat ears. Seriously, feral cats are a problem and it is reasonable to take steps to limit the population. Perhaps import more coyotes where they have not yet established. People should not let their cats roam, and I speak as someone who had an outdoor cat until I got a sense of all the birds she was killing.

  19. I have to disagree (with most of you). IMO cats should not be restricted indoors. I find this unnatural and akin to keeping zoo animals, which I also can’t get behind. I don’t think it’s cruel per se, but perhaps wonder why one would keep animals where the environment (=city) can’t support them? We don’t own a cat, but my neighbor’s cat visits once in a while and I grew up with an indoor/outdoor cat.

    I do agree that over-population is a problem. I didn’t garden in the city so can’t speak to that, but we had loads of feral cats in our back ‘yard’ and they were pretty sad-looking. Again, wrong environment. Where I grew up – suburbs close to woods – everyone let their cats out, but population (of people and cats) wasn’t very dense. As for killing birds, I bet it’s a heck of a lot easier in the city/burbs where people feed birds, than out in the country.

    Neutering/spaying of both domestic (but outside) and feral cats seems the best solution to me. And perhaps choosing wisely whether a pet is right for your lifestyle/environment?

    That said, I totally understand the urge to have a pet, where ever you live, so if indoor cat is the only option, so be it. Certainly better than a neglected dog (this is where I confess to being a dog owner).

  20. Hi,

    I live in Plainfield, a semi-urban city of 50,000 in NJ. Behind my house there was a large colony of feral cats, about 20+. As a gardener with a corner lot that has a good size front and side garden this was not exactly paradise, but what I did this past year was to call for help from a local agency that does the trap-neutering-release thing. I donated a small amount of money, didn’t need to but just did. Today there are still a good number of cats around but I am hoping the population doesn’t grow anymore. I also found out that 3 of my neighbors were feeding them, they continue to do so but now they know that if they see a new cat around we must make sure to have him neuter -kittens are picked up by a local non-kill shelter, socialize and then put up for adoption.

    There is a lot to say about studies, but I have found that so far we humans are doing the most harm since, if you look around, how many people are really gardening with birds -or bees- on mind? Here in my block I am the only one!

    If you want to find more information on feral cats and what help/options are out there, here is a link to the national organization that helped me locate help in my area:

    I used to truly dislike outdoor cats for all the “gardening” reasons but today I feel we all need to do our share on controlling the very sad statistic of feral cats. Hope this point of view helps.

  21. So it is ok for other predictors to kill birds -hawks, snakes, fox, etc., but not cats. What next? Going to start calling them witches’ familiars?

  22. I fully support spay/neuter programs. THat’s the only ethical way to deal with the issue at large, aside from go upside the heads of the fools who insist on feeding them.

    However…I live in a dog home; 2 pit bulls and a Aussie shepherd. Cats are not an option for me, but I am ever so grateful for the 2 short hair strays that fixed our mouse problem. No doubt they also tackled a lot of the palmetto bugs. I also have no qualms about cats killing grackles or squirrels (THE bane of my gardens…god, I hate them).

    I find a heavy (hardwood) mulching is a fair cat deterrent. They don’t seem to find it worth the effort of tearing it up just to relieve themselves. Also, wormwood as a border plant is a decent deterrent as well. They absolutely hate the taste, as well they should because it’s bitter as hell. And the bamboo skewers submerged around the plant like a porcupine (sharp side ~3 inches out of the soil) works for plants that should not be mulched, like house plants.

  23. Cat droppings can spread toxoplasmosis, and that can cause severe damage to fetuses. So pregnant women should be wary of exposure to soil that cats might have contaminated. Here is something I use to prevent damage to newly sown seeds and new plantings: I save cuttings of crown-of-thorns to lay over areas when I dig. Keeps those pesky cats away.

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