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More reasons to keep cats inside ... birds

It may be the year of the dragon in China, but here it's the year of the cat.

A beloved pet from Medford is put to death — with microchip identification embedded — at overburdened Jackson County Animal Shelter. A cretin or cretins unknown burned a cat nearly to death in Eagle Point. In Phoenix, somebody in training to become a serial killer is poisoning neighborhood cats.

In addition to the torture and death visited upon these innocent creatures, a controversy is raging over colonies of feral cats. That's an issue beyond the scope of today's column.

But there is a simple way to avert all the nastiness waiting for your cat in the wider world. Keep Fluffy in. This is one of those messages that can be hard to hear until one day the sun comes up and you just get it. Lots of bad outcomes don't happen to indoor cats. And indoor cats don't happen to the wider world, especially its bird life.

"We can't vaccinate against cars," says veterinarian Dwight Sinner, of Medford.

Sinner says 20 percent of the cats he sees are indoor pets, which have a much greater chance of seeing their 16th or 18th birthdays.

"The majority of health issues are greatly reduced," he says, listing bite wounds from other cats, dog attacks, raccoon attacks, poisoning with anti-freeze or by sickos, getting hit by cars, other trauma, getting lost and "the things that happen when neighbors who don't like cats take them to the shelter — or somewhere else."

There are some 80 million pet cats in the nation, maybe a third of which are kept indoors. Nobody knows how many strays and ferals there are, but up to maybe 100 million leading short, brutal lives. And when that purring lap kitty goes outdoors, she's a killing machine.

Nobody knows how many wild birds are killed by cats, but estimates run from the mid-hundreds of millions to more than a billion in this country. And most American bird species already are in decline.

It's not a case of "nature." It's a case of native animals who already have tough lives being killed by an exotic species that's not part of the ecosystem, often for sport. And cats aren't just killing the robins and mourning doves of suburban neighborhoods, they're preying on endangered species. They're hell on little cat feet to ground-nesting birds such as California and mountain quail and killdeer, all of which are abundant in Southern Oregon.

As a cause of declining bird populations, introduced predators are second worldwide only to loss of habitat from human activity. A study in Wichita, Kan., found that 83 percent of outdoor cats killed birds, although most owners said the cats never brought prey to them (see www.geocities.com/the_srco/Article.html).

Roaming cats catch rabies, which they pass on to dogs, other cats and wildlife. And they kill more than a billion small mammals a year, reducing the populations of the field mice and shrews that are dietary staples of hawks and owls.

Belled cats quickly become as lethal as those without. De-clawed cats are likewise skilled killers. Nor does being well-fed curb the hunting instinct. Cats in studies have been observed leaving a dish of a favorite food to kill a bird, then returning to the dish. Most birds that are caught by cats and escape die later of injuries not obvious at the time.

I don't know of similar studies locally. But all this stuff has been studied to death. Check out the websites of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf), The Smithsonian Institution (www.smithsonianscience.org), the American Bird Conservancy (abcbirds.org). None of this is the cats' fault. The fault is human.

The indoor-cat message came to me 15 years ago from Alberto Enriquez, a fellow reporter with an eye for science. I wasn't ready. My second call was a PBS program about birds and other wildlife killed by house cats in the English countryside. Still not ready. The third came with the sad loss, before their times, of Nick and Andy, two great cats, and the last we ever allowed out.

Some people fear an indoor cat will become a fat, lazy stereotype, but it ain't necessarily so, Sinner says.

"We have two clinic cats," he says. "A cat's personality is pretty much chosen by them, and they allow us to live in that world."

In addition to good nutrition and check-ups, he says, indoor cats need interaction and play to prevent weight problems or any obsessive traits.

My current significant other of the feline persuasion, Bobbie, is perched in a sunny window pursuing one of her favorite hobbies, bird watching. A long-haired, green-eyed, gray cat whose name was inspired by her short tail, she's had 13 years of safe, healthy, indoor life. She is vigorous, tuned into humans and fun, ready to play at a moment's notice.

"Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch," she says, eying the house finches and dark-eyed juncos and mourning doves around the feeders. I don't speak cat, but I'm pretty sure this means, "I'd like to rip your feathered little bodies to bloody pieces."

Sure she would. But it's not gonna happen.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.