The domestic cat is popular as a pet around the world. From ancient Egypt to the islands of the Pacific, cats are synonymous with human colonization and modernization. We have introduced them to all but the most remote habitats on Earth.
Although we cherish our pets (I live with two myself), there is an enormous cost associated with allowing them to roam outdoors or turn feral. Some argue that cats are "happier" outside and wish to encourage the natural instincts of their pets, while welfare advocates may maintain outdoor "cat colonies." I will argue these endeavors are well-intentioned, but misguided.
Last summer, results from the "Kitty Cams" project by National Geographic and the University of Georgia were released. Researchers used cameras to track the behavior of domestic cats. As expected, the research produced photo and video evidence of attacks on wildlife. They determined cats who hunt average two kills per week, and only one in four kills are brought home. Additionally, a new study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute suggests cats in the U.S. kill billions a year.
While wildlife impacts are a large concern for conservationists and environmentalists alike, we must address the impacts on people. In this case, we are primarily threatened by zoonotic diseases. Cats are known to transmit Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that affects the brain. Various studies suggest that this parasitic infection is linked to increasing suicide attempts in women, illness in newborn children and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Cats may also transmit rabies, a fatal disease, as evidenced by several Morgantown cases during the summer of 2011.
What about the cats? Outdoor cats often experience dramatically shortened lives. They can be hit by vehicles, accidentally poisoned by commonly used chemicals, encounter dangerous wildlife or other cats and be exposed to extreme weather events. Even the humane society, a well-known animal welfare group, encourages owners to keep their cats inside; a point the National Bird Conservancy also advocates.
There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that keeping cats indoors is a better option for everyone involved. We know cats with homes still kill wildlife, and these cats act as a disease vector. The lives of outdoor cats are particularly harsh, and as advocates of animal welfare, we should be considerate of the dangers these animals face.