Keep the cats inside

Not a good mix

This was to be a post touting the glorious weekend I had exploring the DC area with fellow garden bloggers. But, while I was away, I received news that a nest of birds we’d been hosting has possibly fallen prey to one of the many free-roaming/feral cats that plague our neighborhood. There are several of them—some obviously pets and some from the feral population—that regularly treat our courtyard garden as part of their territory. They’d like to get at the pond fish, but don’t want to risk immersion, and they are definitely after any and all birds. And, of course, they love to treat our garden as a great big litter box.

I have friends/neighbors who insist on letting their cats out, asserting that they deserve this freedom and that bird casualties are part of the cycle of life. Many scientists disagree with this stance, including ornithologist Peter Marra, who states in a National Geographic interview, “Domestic cats are as much a part of the natural order as a cow, pig, or golden retriever. They are not a natural part of any ecosystem on the planet.” He recommends, “Owned cats need to be treated like pet dogs. They should be kept indoors, on a leash or in a catio. Unowned cats, which have no owner to take responsibility, pose a risk to biodiversity and human health, and live dangerous, unhealthy lives. They need to be removed from the environment and put up for adoption, placed in a sanctuary, or euthanized.” Read the whole interview here.

Those are fighting words to the large and vocal community of free-roaming-cat advocates, who have disputed every scientific study that’s come out so far, including this one, by Loss, Will, and Mara. A similar study in Canada finds that cats are the #1 killer of birds there (followed by window collisions).  And there are even studies examining why cat owners who allow their cats to roam deny any evidence that this causes harm.

It might be different in rural areas, where cats supply mouse control on farms, or fall prey themselves to animals like coyotes. That’s not the case in cities like Buffalo. There are plenty of other ways to control rodents and there are no superior predators. Dogs, are, quite rightly, subject to leash laws. I see no reason for people to let their cats roam freely in cities, none. As a cat owner whose cat has been happily indoors for 15 years,  I’m sick of being told it’s OK to do otherwise.

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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 regular 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. Yes!

    You can try telling people who won’t listen about saving wildlife that indoor-only cats live twice as long (on average) as cats who go outdoors. I was telling someone that and mentioned my (then) 19 year old cat – she was shocked to learn cats could live that long. Now, granted Katydid is exceptional but 14-16 years is still a good long lifespan compared to 5-7, which is the average for cats allowed to roam.

  2. I disagree as a cat lover of 9 healthy cats that have regular veterinarian checkups and of those 4 are indoors of which 2 like to go outside and lay on the porch. The other 5 stay inside the fenced yard and all are well fed and cared for and do not hunt birds and I also live in what I would consider between a city and rural area. Originally only 1 cat was mine and the rest were born here by a cat that left here kittens.

      • Anne, I raised them from kittens and there are chickens and chicks roaming outside the fence and they don’t chase after them. They actually
        get nervous around people they have to be comfortable around you. The neighbor across has 2 cats and they stay in their property. There is a “feral” cat around but I have never seen it eat a bird although I live next to a field there are no problems with rats or mice. Once in a while he will come to take the left overs of my cats’ supper.

  3. I’m no longer having children, but I remember back then, I worried about toxoplasmosis, which is transferred in cat poop. We didn’t own any cats, but the neighborhood cats used some of our planters for a bathroom, so I had to be careful…god forbid I should ask a neighbor to keep their pet from roaming free in my yard.

  4. Welcome to the new Dark Ages. How are those “other ways of controlling rodents” working out for you in Buffalo? If your city is like every other US city, you are waging a losing battle against rats – as well as voles, rabbits, groundhogs, etc.
    The feral TNR cat colony that resided in the auto mechanic garages next door to our local community garden has disappeared over the winter. Our garden was then hit hard by bunnies this spring and my bean plants are eaten down to the nub nightly by them. Others plots are similarly devastated.
    I keep my two cats safe inside — one joins me in the garden on a harness and leash occasionally — but I heartily encourage the feral cats that are roaming our urban areas and farms to keep on controlling diseases and rodent populations.
    BTW recent research (and common sense) shows, Felines are not like Canines. They are not actually domesticated. They just choose to live in human proximity as it is currently mutual for both our species.

  5. Our own species is even more a scourge. Due to conversion, grassland birds are the most threatened group on the planet. Toss in CO2 and methane emissions and we have a planet most life can’t adapt to. Yes, keep cats inside (they live longer), yes trap spay neuter release, but let’s also look at the even more profound threat our species is. Care about birds? Change this culture. End the Anthropocene.

    • Very good point, BV.
      WE are the invasive species and the #1 reason for bird (and other wildlife) deaths. Scapegoats (or scape-cats) are easy targets. Let’s take a hard look at our lifestyles and address that suburban sprawl, pesticide use, petrochemical waste, etc.

    • Any chance you are an antifracking activist ben? Have you ever read Michael pollans “on weeds” essay? I think you might get something out of it. If man is such a scourge one wonders where it is your education on grassland birds actually came from?

  6. Yes, you’re right: many will disagree. I don’t own a cat, but I’m with the “free range” cat owners on this. It’s true that domestic cats aren’t part of any “natural” ecosystem, but neither are grassy lawns, most flower and vegetable gardens, and pretty much any yard other than one that’s full of native plants. I’m far more concerned about the chemicals most people dump on their lawns and gardens (including so-called “natural” fertilizers) than I am about cats.

  7. Now that the momma robin has figured out how to circumvent my carefully contrived cage of chicken wire, netting and clothes pins enclosing the blueberry bushes (and taught her offspring), I wish the decrepit old outdoor cat (AKA Roadkill) was a ferocious bird killing machine.

  8. Those who think cats don’t do much harm just don’t know the research nor do they observe them as I have for decades on my nestbox trail and at my bird feeders. Also, when a cat kills a bird or mammal, they indirectly kill the nestlings or mammal young who now starve to death as the other parent abandons the nest. Cats kill small mammals and devastate amphibian populations. They kill butterfly after butterfly. Raptors lose their food supply. The trap-neuter- return advocates will lie to you over and over when they tell you that euthanasia is inhumane but a cat death in nature is humane. They lie when they say the population decreases at colony sites, even though studies clearly show otherwise. When a colony’s numbers drop for some reason, they will tell you they had to have died. Nope. Not always. They wander away. I’ve had two show up at my feeders. One executive at the biggest TNR advocacy group told me that “cats don’t kill healthy birds.” Another lie. Ask cat colony owners to take in more cats and they will say they can’t afford to feed them. Trap and take one of the colony residents to the veterinarian when they are showing signs of illness? Too expensive.

    Free roaming cats are an invasive species. I have the latest in trapping equipment and use it often. People conclude I must hate cats. Ridiculous. Personally, my husband and I have quite a number of cats. When my cats get sick, I have my vet do every test needed for a diagnosis and treat until cured. Every cat that comes to the end of its life has every diagnostic test performed, no matter the cost, before we, in conjunction with the veterinarian make the decision to euthanize, if necessary. My cats are indoor/outdoor, i.e. outdoor in a large cage, which they love, for they get to come and go as they please and sit all day and watch the abundance of wildlife in my yard that would not exist if they roamed freely.

    People don’t let their cats roam to make the cats feel better.
    They do it to make themselves feel better.

    (My cats’ outdoor room accessed from our basement):

  9. Yes, Elizabeth!! I am so tired of hearing people defend letting their cats roam by saying that cats need to roam in order to be happy. Horse hockey! Our cats have ALWAYS been indoor animals, and they’re perfectly content. With one exception (heart attack), they’ve all lived to age 16. If you want to give them fresh air and a little outside exercise, train them to a leash or buy a KittyWalk tunnel. People also seem to forget that cats are vulnerable to predators and accidents themselves – it isn’t just the songbirds and the gardens at risk.

  10. Thanks, Marcia. Folks who rant about TNR have not looked at the peer-reviewed, scientific research. People who think cats don’t kill birds haven’t looked at the research. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

    Check out Rob Dunn’s research Cat Tracker. They put tracking collars and cameras on cats and folks were surprised how far cats roamed and what they did.

    I’ll add to this – I worked for years in wildlife rehabilitation. Guess what was the number one cause of animals brought in to us? yep, cats. They accounted for almost 70% of our intakes (I did the math).

    I know none of this will affect the folks who like the idea of their cat being a free spirit proxy but if you’re on the fence please, please, please look at the actual data, not anecdotes. Your cat’s life may depend on it.

  11. In southern California we have coyotes instead of outdoor cats. When the coyotes can’t feed on cats and rabbits, they do quite a bit of ratting.

  12. There are good people in my neighborhood who round up the local feral cats, have the cats spayed/neutered, and then the cats are returned to the “wild”. It bothers me that they do this, but when I tried to voice this opinion with a do-gooder, I had to drop my argument quickly to avoid heated confrontation. If they go through the trouble to round up the cats, why not euthanize the poor animals? We’d be doing good for the environment as well as providing other services.

    Although, I’m a bit tired of the rabbits and chipmunks destroying young plants, especially my wildflowers…

    • Hi Sarah,

      That is the trap/neuter/release concept. It is very controversial as there is little evidence that it actually works to decrease populations. But many find the alternative (euthanasia) unpalatable. There’s really not much of a solution, but if people would keep their cats inside in the first place, it will be helpful. And then there are all the people who get tired of their cats and just throw them out. That is a big contributor to feral populations.

      • “But many find the alternative (euthanasia) unpalatable.”

        As someone who has taken in a lot of trapped cats, socialized them, and watched them go through life’s stages, including illness and infirmity, what is truly unpalatable is the typical TNR woman, who thinks that a feline’s illness and subsequent death in nature is humane. It’s not.They have an emotional need and will often tell you that they cannot stop and their colonies consume their lives. I’ve talked to many TNR advocates. They become blind to the addiction and their inability to stop destroys their own lives and finances, let alone the lives of the cats and their prey.

  13. I have two cats, both former strays. I tried to turn Finn into an indoor cat, but he was not having it. A perfect gentleman inside, he could turn into a terror if not allowed out at night (and I have the scars to prove it). Fortunately, he shows little interest in birds, favors bunnies, mice, and voles. Beau, on the other hand, would decimate the bird population if given a chance. He stays in all the time. Fort Wayne has several ways of dealing with feral cats, including a catch-neuter/spay-release program. Also, if they receive repeat calls about a particular cat, they find it a home in the country. Too bad we can’t train cats to go after the undesirable birds – sparrows, I’m talking about you!

  14. I live in the country, and let me assure you that outdoor cats are a scourge here also. And we and our neighbors are all sick of having town people dump their unwanted cats here (as well as the contents of their “have a heart” traps). Feral cats kill our birds too.

  15. Actually, the two studies mentioned above look at ANTHROPOGENIC mortality of birds. That is, deaths caused by human activity. Because cats are domesticated (or at least semi-domesticated according to some), then they fall in this category. These studies do not look at other causes of death such as disease and predation from natural predators (eg. a Cooper’s Hawk’s entire diet is birds and I venture they eat more birds than a cat does). The studies also admittedly do not consider habitat loss because it was too hard to quantify, but an argument could be made that is more detrimental to bird populations than a cat. Therefore, to claim that cats are the number one killer is a bit of an exaggeration, even if they are the number one cause of anthropogenic deaths.

    I would love to see a study that compares the anthropogenic mortality rates with overall mortality rates of birds. Is it 5%, 10, %, 20%, 40%? It would give us a clearer picture of what our impact is and ideas about how to address these problems. Of course, different bird species have different life expectancies (an eagle can live 15-20 years while a robin lives only 2 years or so) so it is difficult to determine.

    It is worth noting that, according to the Loss, Will and Mara study, for every bird killed, cats kill 6 small mammals, and in urban areas, that would include non-native rats and mice. As we better control owned-cats and reduce the feral population, what impact will it have on the vermin population? Would subsequent efforts to control the vermin require actions that could impact birds even more? Such as poisons, traps, etc.

    Both studies also note that cats have the biggest impact in more urban and suburban areas, which is not surprising. These are not natural ecosystems for birds either. So, in our efforts to attract birds, do features such as birdhouses, bird baths and feeders create artificial gathering spots for birds in an unnatural ecosystem? Are these effectively bait stations for predators? Perhaps, in addition to keeping pet cats indoors, we should ban bird baths and feeders until the feral population can be controlled.

  16. If we didn’t have a colony of feral cats living at our community garden, we gardeners would have a very hard time growing anything. We had 2 years when the previous colony died off & most seedlings got chomped down to stumps every night due to rats & mice. Gophers were pretty rampant too. Once we introduced a new feral colony, the depredation stopped. The ferals do get fed once a day & are caught & neutered. The garden has plenty of birds, unfortunately too many crows who do attack the smaller birds.

    I love cats and birds and also my vegetables; nature will just have to work this cat vs bird through.

  17. i have two ex-feral indoor/outdoor cats who do help control rodents in our house and in our large inner-suburbs garden. they have to wear Bird-Be-Safe collars whenever they are outside. the collars are not 100% effective, my cats do sometimes still catch birds, but it is maybe a few times a year as opposed to daily. the collars also have a reflective edging which improves their visibility to car drivers.
    google and buy for your outdoor cats! it’s a start.

  18. Well, here I go again. The second article is not another study; it cites the first study. The first study says: “Existing estimates of mortality from cat predation are speculative and not based on scientific data or, at best, are based on extrapolation of results from a single study. In addition, no large-scale mortality estimates exist for mammals, which form a substantial component of cat diets.”
    I approach all such issues from a scientific perspective and I do not see hard science that leads to the conclusion. I would like to see a scientific study – but have not yet seen one.
    Why are cats a problem now when they have not been so before in history? In previous times, owned cats were fed far less than today and kept inside far less than today. They were kept to protect the grain that people stored.
    Furthermore, if we were to accept this article’s numbers, the outside cats are eliminating 2.4 billion birds each year AND 12.3 billion small mammals (mice, rats, voles, rabbits, gophers). Do we want to have 12.3 billion more of these small mammals around?
    All that being said, I contribute money regularly to my local Feral Cat Coalition that traps, neuters/spays cats and releases them. I hope those who believe that cats are a problem will do no less. When I find intact toms wandering, I put a note around their necks informing their owners where they can be neutered at low cost.

  19. Interesting to come to Gardenrant after some time away and read the entirety of the comments on this topic. Those in favor of allowing their cats to roam free seem to only be citing their antidotes about the cats doing the job of controlling wildlife they are troubled by – mice, rats, voles, chipmunks, rabbits, etc. and seem to completely disregard that the cats are causing deep damage to populations of native animals. This is just selfish and callous thinking. “I don’t care what happens to nature as long as I’m not inconvenienced”. I hear the same comments all the time from people who spray mosquitoes – no concern that the spray also kills every insect in the neighborhood.
    My own antidote about cats is the one where I was at a local nursery adjacent to a very large wetland just as the wildlife trapper was loading up a pregnant (and beautiful) coyote to haul off to be shot (I heard later that she went into labor on the truck). The reason she was being killed was that neighbors complained about her hunting their damned cats.
    Does anyone see the problem here?

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