It is 2 am and you can’t sleep. You hear something rustling outside your window, you look out to see two eyes lit up by your porch light. “What is it?”
Or a cat?
I love cats (even though I’m allergic to them and can’t have a pet cat of my own). They are funny, courageous and adorably cute, and I want the best for cats and their owners. As a scientist who studies domestic cats when they are outside, one of the questions I get asked the most from people ¬– cat lovers or not – is whether they belong outside.
Is it safe for cats to be outside unsupervised? And why should you care about a cat in your yard?
People may put their cat outside for many reasons: because it provides entertainment and exercise for the cat, or because they feel their cat needs freedom. But cats can live perfectly healthy lives indoors – in fact, thousands of years of breeding has ensured that and research has shown that indoor cats live longer and have fewer injuries. There are also ways to offer outdoor time without putting your beloved kitty at risk of harmful disease such as rabies, feline immunodeficiency virus, or lyme disease. For example, you can build a “catio” – an enclosed patio space designed for cats – or train them to be comfortable on a leash and take them on outdoor walks with you.
Domestic cats were introduced to North America when European explorers brought them on their ships in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and animals that originated in North America (such as robins, cardinals and mourning doves) are unable to cope with cats hunting them. This means that when cats are outside they can harm local mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds — an estimated 1–3 billion birds/year are killed by cats in North America alone!
Cats can also transmit harmful parasites to humans, such as toxoplasmosis, when they pee or poop in your garden. Toxoplasmosi is a horrible parasite that can cause inflammation and cysts in your brain. It negatively alters behaviour, affecting thought processes, or making people more likely to self harm or commit suicide. Yikes!
Those are just a few of the many reasons to be concerned about the cat in your yard, and I encourage you to learn more about the risks and benefits — for you, your cat, local wildlife and your neighbours — of putting your cat outdoors unsupervised.
I’m studying cats that roam outdoors in parts of southern Ontario and how they interact with local wildlife, other cats, and humans. I am looking for volunteers to set up trail cameras in yards or on your property in and around Guelph ON, and Wellington County, ON.
Stay tuned to learn more about what is lurking in your yard and how we can work together to improve the lives of cats and wildlife. If you want to help with our cat trail camera project please contact me (egow(at)uoguelph.ca)
Dr. Elizabeth Gow is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph. Her research uses interdisciplinary approaches understand the impacts of roaming cats on bird populations, cat health, wildlife, and humans. She can be contacted at egow(at)uoguelph.ca . The Liber Ero Fellowship Program supports early-career scientists to conduct applied conservation research in Canada.