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EarthTalk: Should house cats roam free outside?

It’s better for the health of the cat – and far better for the many small animals that cats hunt – to keep them indoors, some say.

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Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

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Q: Please help settle the debate about whether or not my cats should stay in or go out. My neighborhood is relatively safe for cats, vis-à-vis car traffic, and I think it is more natural for them to be outside and not always inside. They do kill wildlife, including birds, but aren’t they just taking the place of natural predators that once did the same?
Bill Thomson, Bangor, Maine

A: Most environmental advocates say that keeping cats indoors is better for both the health of the felines themselves and for their prey. Scientists estimate that the typical free-roaming house cat kills some 100 small animals each year. This means that the 90 million domestic house cats living in the United States alone are killing hundreds of millions if not billions of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians every year. And while house cats on the prowl may serve to replace the natural predators long ago extirpated by humans, their popularity as pets puts their population density far ahead of those that came before them.

“Cat predation is an added stress to wildlife populations already struggling to survive habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and other human impacts,” says the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which in 1997 launched its controversial Cats Indoors! campaign to educate animal lovers about the benefits of keeping Tabby inside. ABC also points out that free-roaming cats are exposed to injury, disease, parasites, and collisions with cars. They can get lost, stolen, or poisoned. To help drive its point home, ABC produces a wide range of educational materials (including a brochure, “Keeping Cats Indoors Isn’t Just for the Birds”) and public service announcements in service to their ongoing campaign.

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