EarthTalk: Should house cats roam free outside?

It’s better for the health of the cat – and far better for the many small animals that cats hunt – to keep them indoors, some say.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

Q: Please help settle the debate about whether or not my cats should stay in or go out. My neighborhood is relatively safe for cats, vis-à-vis car traffic, and I think it is more natural for them to be outside and not always inside. They do kill wildlife, including birds, but aren’t they just taking the place of natural predators that once did the same?
Bill Thomson, Bangor, Maine

A: Most environmental advocates say that keeping cats indoors is better for both the health of the felines themselves and for their prey. Scientists estimate that the typical free-roaming house cat kills some 100 small animals each year. This means that the 90 million domestic house cats living in the United States alone are killing hundreds of millions if not billions of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians every year. And while house cats on the prowl may serve to replace the natural predators long ago extirpated by humans, their popularity as pets puts their population density far ahead of those that came before them.

“Cat predation is an added stress to wildlife populations already struggling to survive habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and other human impacts,” says the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which in 1997 launched its controversial Cats Indoors! campaign to educate animal lovers about the benefits of keeping Tabby inside. ABC also points out that free-roaming cats are exposed to injury, disease, parasites, and collisions with cars. They can get lost, stolen, or poisoned. To help drive its point home, ABC produces a wide range of educational materials (including a brochure, “Keeping Cats Indoors Isn’t Just for the Birds”) and public service announcements in service to their ongoing campaign.

Nonetheless, many cat lovers believe that it is inhumane to confine felines indoors, since they have evolved as hunters and thrive on the natural stimulation only available outside. To help soften the blow and wean your cat off of the outdoors slowly, ABC suggests gradually curtailing your cat’s out-of-doors time over the course of a few months until it is eventually not let out at all. In doing so, you will need to provide your cat with a lot of attention and play indoors. New scratching posts and toys are a good bet, as they may entertain cats that ordinarily occupy themselves chasing birds and rodents. ABC suggests hiding various toys around the house so cats can sniff them and not miss so much the thrill of the hunt outdoors.

One last bit of important advice: Many fear that confining their cats indoors will lead to more shredded upholstery. But declawing your cat should never be an option, says veterinarian Christianne Schelling. Cats’ claws are a vital part of their anatomy, she says. Declawing is not simply fingernail trimming but the removal of the last joint of a cat’s “toes.” It is a painful procedure and can lead to serious physical, emotional, and behavioral complications.

Alternatives to declawing include providing scratching posts in various locations around the home, and trimming your cats’ nails occasionally. This involves trimming only the clear tip of the nail (never the pink or dark fleshy parts, which are skin) and should be done only upon first consulting with a veterinarian. Another option is a product called Soft Paws, lightweight vinyl caps that you apply over your cat’s claws. They have rounded edges, so your cat’s scratching doesn’t damage your home and furnishings.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail:

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