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Posted on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 11 a.m.

Keep your pet cats indoors to protect bird populations

By Cathy Theisen DVM


Baltimore oriole and American goldfinch share a tree.

Cathy Theisen DVM | Contributor

After 23 years of veterinary practice, I've loved a lot of cats. I can't help but admire their grace and athleticism, and the variety of feline personalities that I see every day. I share my own home with two kinetic orange brothers, named Cleve and Preston, who bring a lot of joy and laughter to everyday life. Cats are cool!

Unfortunately, these beautiful pets that we so adore are also efficient killing machines.

In a recent Audubon magazine article, Ted Williams writes a controversial piece about whether Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) programs violate federal endangered species law. Essentially, TNR programs capture, sterilize, and then re-release feral (wild, homeless) cats into stable colonies that live outdoors. TNR is often considered the most humane and compassionate way to deal with the overpopulation of cats, working on the premise that if we let them live out their lives but not reproduce, we'll eventually get ahead of the problem. Williams makes the case that in certain areas, like the Hawaiian Islands, feral cats are decimating already threatened bird species. He calls cats "hyperpredators", animals that are well fed and healthy, competing unfairly in a natural system in which they are essentially subsidized. Read more here.

I'll say at the outset that I've been a long supporter of TNR programs, and believe they are one of many solutions to the cat crisis. I bring up Williams' article because I think he makes a valid point when he questions whose life should be saved in these situations, dreadful a choice as it is. The domestic cat is the most abundant land predator left in most of our state, which is home to several endangered and threatened bird species. By virtue of its beautiful parks and the Huron River watershed, Ann Arbor hosts many unique birds as they pass through on spring and fall migration. It's a complicated problem, and one that each community will have to wrestle with eventually.

But some things are obvious and easy, and that's where the individual comes in. Many of us grew up with the belief that you always kept the dog confined and under control, but it was OK to let the family cat wander freely. It's time for that old paradigm to be reconsidered. From a simple welfare point of view, your cat will be much healthier. (S)he won't contract contagious disease, be attacked by other animals, be hit by a car, or be taken by people with bad intentions, ... and you won't be contributing to the global decline in birds and other wildlife.

If you have always let your cat out, I sympathize with you. It can be pretty tough to make the switch. You'll have to put up with persistent meowing, door dashing, and general unhappy kitty behaviours. But like us, cats adapt, and will eventually accept this new way of doing things. Provide as much enrichment indoors as you can, and be strong. Some people even put up enclosed kitty kennels outside a window, so the cat can go in/out, but is confined. Now is a good time to try the switch, as many cats prefer to stay in during inclement weather. You just have to develop the strength of will between now and spring to not let him start roaming again.

Never, and I mean never, let your cat have "just one litter." While you may find good homes for the six kittens your cat has, that becomes six kittens that may be euthanized at a humane society. There is simply no excuse for letting your cat reproduce. If you want your kids to experience the miracle of birth and the joy of babies, apply to become a foster home to an abandoned cat and her kittens at your local humane society. Your kids will have the full experience, plus get a valuable lesson about what it is to be a responsible pet owner.


Preston is an avid indoor bird watcher.

Cathy Theisen DVM | Contributor

It's a time when we are all becoming more alert to the impact our actions have on the environment around us. Keeping your cat indoors is just another way to preserve our shrinking natural resources.

Dr. Cathy Theisen is currently working as a relief veterinarian in Ann Arbor and is an active board member of Michigan’s State Animal Response Team. E-mail her your questions and comments.



Wed, Oct 14, 2009 : 8:23 a.m.

jlkddd, Are you kidding me? If we follow your argument then we should also let dogs run free throughout the city, just throwing food out for them every once in a while. Maybe add in some chickens while we are at it.


Mon, Oct 12, 2009 : 10:45 a.m.

seriuosly...I wasn't aware of how many stupid cat haters there are. They are meant to hunt and kill. And who really cares...if you ask me there are too many birds as it is. Come out to my house if you want to see all the freaking birds!


Mon, Oct 12, 2009 : 12:28 a.m.

The article to which this post linked has little to do with house cats in Ann Arbor. Oahu is not Michigan. If cats live in a tropical climate where they could become feral, exotic predators of native species, as in Oahu, then government regulation is necessary. I haven't seen any evidence that house cats threaten native bird species in Michigan, probably because they replace native predators who don't tolerate the presence of humans. Those predators, like coyotes, who do tolerate humans can easily out-compete house cats, if not predate them.. The last two cats I owned (litter mates) were trained to be indoor cats. We lived on five acres near an expressway, and had a previous outdoor cat disappear. Training them to stay indoors was easy-- as kittens, we'd let them walk outside and then we'd scream, and they'd run back into the safe indoors. Repeat that several times, and the cat definitely doesn't want to go outside, where that scary screaming this is.. One of the cats, a neutered, declawed female, never cared to go outside again. The other, a neutered, declawed male, found his way outside after several years and absolutely loved it. He was never seriously injured, and he didn't get sick. He did catch rodents, which were more than abundant in that part of Superior Township. He didn't catch any birds, although the bluejays would dive-bomb him when they caught him on open lawn. When he was about age 20, we moved into town, and he voluntarily relinquished his outdoor privileges. He died at age 24, outliving his sister by two years. Of the two cats, the outdoor cat was by far more affectionate; his indoor sister didn't like to be held. Neither of them seemed to suffer ill-effects from their differing lifestyles.. If we're going to consider the human impact on native species, let's not forget the hundreds, if not thousands, of Ann Arbor residents who feed wild birds, thus unnaturally increasing the population and, ironically, making them easy targets for predators. In my neighborhood, it's the raptor who gazes longingly at the bird feeder flocks.. Unless a cat is coming home injured, or bothering its owner's neighbors, I don't see why letting the cat outside is such a terrible thing.


Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 10:30 p.m.

MjC, I don't like cats and I don't like finding cat poop in my front yard. Today, while working in the yard I found two dead wee small mice while trimming the bushes. I just about vomitted.


Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 6:36 p.m.

My cats have always been outdoor cats. My current cat (an abandoned guy I adopted from the humane society) loves it outside. He doesn't kill birds (meows at them and they fly away) but he does do a good job with the mice. My previous outdoor cat lived 15 years (probably would have lived longer if not for the tainted cat food incident that killed her and a number of other cats/dogs). Because I hear so much negative comments from people (cars, coyotes, bird killings, mice killings, cruel people, etc.) my current cat will be my last. I've never known an indoor cat to be "normal" - despite what their owners think, and I could never bring myself to cage them up inside. Maybe we should keep all the humans locked up too.


Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 12:13 a.m.

eric s. cats fighting and cats mating sound very similar.

Cathy Theisen DVM

Sat, Oct 10, 2009 : 12:25 p.m.

The number of comments here confirms just how controversial this issue still is. I do not agree that indoor cats are somehow lacking, in fact, in my experience, they are typically much more social and bonded with their owners. Perhaps, at the very least, some of you who are opposed to confining your cat will consider keeping your next cat indoors from kittenhood. And, of course, please don't harm a wandering cat because their owner has made a decision you disagree with!

Some Guy in 734

Sat, Oct 10, 2009 : 9:45 a.m.

Our little fellas have seen Dr. Theisen before and they stay inside. When they do go outside, it's just to go to the vet. A handful of times we've taken them out to the backyard, leashed, and they haven't enjoyed it. They seemed to be overstimulated, and afterward they were less interested in looking out the window for a little while. Frankly I don't care so much about what they might do to birds or chipmunks outside--I care about what might happen to them. I've seen the streets in our neighborhood. I don't want our little ones to be one of those roadside casualties!

Rork Kuick

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 3:19 p.m.

Yeah, let's talk about the small mammals they kill too - those chipmunks and screaming baby bunnies being skinned alive are better as food for foxes, owls, hawks and other predators. Decreased competition from cats helps. Near me it sure seems that increased coyotes resulted in decreased cat population, some by death, some because the cat owners rethought it. I admit that decreased predation by cats may not increase the barred owl population in big cities, and maybe there are some places where no other predator would take over, but it's helping near me I think.

Eric S

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 2:57 p.m.

My back yard is a crossing point of different outdoor neighborhood cats. I can't count how often I'm awakened to them fighting with each other or with raccoons and skunks, then get to listen to a cat crying in pain for the next 10-20 minutes. Amazingly, I've only had to dispose of one dead cat from my yard so far, and maybe four from Jackson Ave. If you love your cat, keep it inside. If you don't mind it getting injured or killed after a few years, let it out. When they don't come back, don't lie to yourself that your cat found a different home.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 2:35 p.m.

Just like any other house pet, a cat shouldn't roam free. Not only because they can pick up diseases, but there is always the possibility of them being abused or killed by individuals who do not look upon pets with the same loving nature as the rest of use. Our cat has always stayed indoors, I love him enough to want him around and healthy. As an owner we play with him and provide many stands for him to nap in the windows. He is very content and has never once ventured for the door.

sun runner

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 2:02 p.m.

Cats are not people. I highly doubt they're self-aware enough to know what they're "missing" but not having an "adventurous life."


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 1:36 p.m.

If you were given the choice to live a safe disease free life of 100 years but you could never leave your house or an adventure filled life of 50 years and you can come and go where you please.... some of you would no doubt take the 100 years but the rest of us would take the 50 years and we'll take our cats with us.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 1:25 p.m.

I could never understand why someone who loves their cat would let it outside. A domestic cat is no match for a racoon, a ferel cat, a cayote or a car. I grew up in a rural area where farmers always kept a few cats around their barns for rodent control, and the lifespan of these cats was a couple years at best.. I love my cat and would never let her roam. 99% of the time she's content to be inside. And the other 1% of the time, I know that whatever is "inviting" her outside is, undoubtedly, not healthy for her.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:59 p.m.

Our 3 indoor cats have always been indoors and when we occasionally leave the door wide open for groceries etc., they go to the threshhold look around and go right back inside. They enjoy watching things from their many window ledges and are awesome at getting those mice who find their way into the house. They play well together and seem very content...thank you very much!


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:52 p.m.

I adopted a stray in 1988. My vet encouraged me to keep him indoors, but I didn't, and for similar reasons--cats should be allowed to be cats, hunt, explore, etc. A few years later, he killed a mourning dove on the back porch of our favorite elderly neighbors, and he became an indoor cat from that point on. It took him a while to overcome his inclination to go outside, but seemed to successfully adapt to life indoors. He died 2 months ago--that's right, he was nearly 22. His longevity was directly connected to his indoor status, as he was insulated from exposure to feline disease, traffic, dogs, and other dangers posed by a roaming lifestyle. He was an active, loving cat up to his last and I feel he and we (not to mention the neighborhood wildlife) completely benefitted from our decision. I encourage all who own cats to consider this issue thoughtfully, as I'm afraid it has a much bigger impact on birds and other local wildlife than we can possibly imagine. But even if you don't care much about birds, consider it for the health of your kitty, and for your own lasting enjoyment of their company.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:49 p.m.

Also, outdoor cats are the sign of lazy owners. I know many (currently > 10) indoors cats that are very happy, largely due to interaction with the owners and others. If you don't want to take care of a pet, don't have it.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:47 p.m.

Just let your cat come into my yard, I'm happy to live trap it an leave it at the humane society where you will pay a nice fee. Cats are currently allowed outside of leash per law, but are only your property when they are on your lot.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:38 p.m.

Most indoor cats I have known have been miserable when cooped up, always desperate to run outside, even if only for a minute or two. That's not fair to the cat at all. I let my cat (a former TNR stray, by the way) out and he eats the birds he catches--sparrows, blue jays, and grackles. None of those are the least bit endangered.

sun runner

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:07 p.m.

My cats have been exclusively indoors for over six years. I always know where they are, they have no diseases that can be transmitted from infected cats (FIV, for example), they can't be run over by cars, attacked by dogs or other animals, and they aren't killing birds. They don't seem to be the least bit put out by their lifestyle.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 11:42 a.m.

There is nothing that irks me more than watching the overfed neighborhood cat sitting under the bushes near my bird feeder. An unsuspecting ground-feeding bird lands next to the feeder and then BAM! Uneaten bird is dead and the fat cat returns home to eat some kitty krunchies. I'm amazed that so many cat owners fail to recognize this problem.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 11:40 a.m.

There are Coyotes roaming Ann Arbor that will get cats if left out from dusk until dawn. How about a story on this?


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 11:15 a.m.

I understand the point here but for me I wouldn't own a cat if I had to keep it inside all day.