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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Monday, January 30, 2023
Keeping it Green: Curiosity kills: Protecting pet cats andsmall animals

Coyote encounters this spring have sparked concern for small children and dogs in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the impact on pet cats hasn’t yet been part of the conversation.

Cats that are allowed to roam outside have shorter lifespans and are targeted by large predators, while also harming the local environment.

OUT OF THE BAG: Compared to housecats, which live longer than 10 years, outdoor cats often only live two to five years. They can’t outrun birds of prey, or coyotes, which can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour.

Outdoor cats may be hit by road vehicles and must contend with environmental extremes like heat waves or freezing temperatures. If accidentally trapped, like in a dumpster, they may even be at risk of starving or dehydration.

Cats that roam are likely to contract parasites like ticks and worms, or infectious diseases including toxoplasmosis, which can be transmitted to humans. They may even become sick from eating poisoned rodents or drinking from puddles in the road containing “tasty” toxins like antifreeze.

Not only is it dangerous to let cats outside, it’s also against Section 83 of the town’s animal care and control bylaw.

Town spokesperson Marah Minor explains: “Free-roaming domesticated pets (including cats and dogs) are not permitted to roam beyond their owner's private property lines.”

WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN: “Our pets are really important to us, but they’re also a huge blindspot for recognizing our own environmental footprints,” says Brendon Samuels, co-ordinator of Bird Friendly London.

“Cats were introduced to North America by humans only within the last couple hundred years. Wildlife native to North America like birds, frogs and small mammals, don’t stand a chance against domestic cats,” says Samuels, who is also a biology PhD candidate at Western University.

Now, domestic cats are considered one of the top 100 worst invasive species in the world and have caused the extinctions of at least 36 species.

They prey indiscriminately on small animals: scientific studies show that cats kill almost 2 million reptiles each day in Australia and are likely the leading cause of amphibian population declines in the United States.

Outdoor cats kill between 100 and 350 million wild birds in Canada each year, which makes them a leading cause of bird deaths: much more than roads, buildings or energy infrastructure.

Bird populations are already declining sharply due to compounding pressures like climate change, and reduced habitat and food supply.

“Pet owners are usually only aware of a small fraction of the total number of animals that their cat injures or kills while outside,” says Samuels.

Cats don’t kill or eat all the animals they attack, so it’s impossible to know its destructive footprint based on the “gifts” it brings home. Some estimates suggest every outdoor cat kills two animals per week.

THE CAT’S MEOW: Luckily, there are many ways to keep pet cats safe from predators and protect small animals from cats.

Cats can easily be trained to walk on a harness and leash, or can enjoy safe outdoor time in an enclosure like a “catio” or screened-in porch. Inside, many cats enjoy observing wildlife through windows, especially on enriching cat gyms or perches.

Barn cats are still part of the problem if they're allowed outside of buildings. Instead, rodents can be managed by storing animal feed more securely, installing boxes to encourage birds of prey to roost nearby, or using rat terriers.

While transitioning your outdoor cat to an indoor one, visual and audio alerts like bright collars or bells can help prey escape. A product called CatBib even reduces the ability of cats to pounce on small animals.

Keeping cats inside helps them to live longer, safer lives and protects vulnerable wildlife. After all, if we are so concerned about coyotes following natural instincts to feed their young, we must also worry about the negative impacts of our pet cats on fragile local ecosystems.

Kyra Simone is a green-at-heart NOTL resident with master's degrees in biology & science communication. In her spare time, she advocates for sustainable change, picks up litter, makes recycled jewelry, and transforms furniture bound for the landfill.

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