Smile Politely

Outdoor cats are cute, but at what cost?

Photo featuring a tabby cat with a dead bird in it's mouth. Background is browed grass and dirt.
Alice Cahill

Every now and again, we love to poke the cat, er, bear, and address a topic that seems like it should be straightforward, but that we know may get some backlash. However, we do pride ourselves on not shying away from opportunities to engage the community in dialogue and educate ourselves and our readers on serious issues. So, having just read another Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association post about stray cats, this time about a possible cat colony, it’s time to talk about outdoor cats. 

First, a disclaimer: We are not anti-cat at Smile Politely. We think cats are cute. And some of us even have pet cats. That said, like many of you we don’t enjoy having our yards used as litter boxes by someone else’s pet, we don’t enjoy cleaning up the corpses of murdered birds and rodents left in our yards by outdoor cats, and we are sad when we see cat corpses flattened in the street by cars. 

Personal pet peeves aside, there are important ecological reasons to keep Mittens indoors. Here, we make an important distinction between owned pet cats and feral cats. And as CATsNAP Vice President Mercy Johnson said when we sought her expertise, “There is no compelling reason to let an owned cat go outside.” According to research conducted at the University of Illinois, “Even though pet cats have relatively small ranges and are active only in short bursts, their impact on wildlife in the immediate vicinity of their homes is likely much more intense than that of a feral cat that wanders over a larger territory.”

A report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says:

Free-ranging cats are associated with a number of sociological and ecological conflicts. They impact people directly through the spread of parasites and diseases, damage to gardens and property, and noise nuisances. Cats also cause conflict through their direct and indirect impacts on native wildlife through predation, competition, spread of disease, and impacts on species survival (e.g., nest failure, injury, behavioral changes).

In fact, peer-reviewed research published in Nature asserts that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually. Moreover, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Invasive Species Specialist Group lists cats as one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world.

As a result of the intense adverse impact free-ranging cats have on the environment, a handful of cities in Europe have taken legal steps to curtail free-ranging cats. Many cities in Iceland have laws ranging from complete bans on outdoor cats to nightly curfews. Although it has since been lifted, Walldorf, a small town in Germany, also experimented with a seasonal curfew for outdoor cats in order to protect an endangered bird. Cats were only to be allowed outside on a leash no more than six feet in length and owners whose cats killed one of the endangered birds during the curfew faced a hefty fine. 

To be clear, we are not advocating for similar laws in Champaign-Urbana, though there are some sensible laws that might make sense according to Johnson:

Just because we think cats are predators and will kill off other species should not apply to feral cats. And there will always be feral cats. Because we have a people problem, not a cat problem. Vets could single-handedly cure the problem nationwide, fixing feral cats at a reasonable cost. People need to smarten up and quit letting cats outside, especially unaltered, and to please stop throwing them out when they have too many or they move. There needs to be a law if you own a cat [to] fix it. And make it affordable. When Urbana made it a law not to feed feral cats, Urbana became overrun with mice, so even feral cats do good for us. Alter them, feed them, and let them be.

If you do see an outdoor cat and aren’t sure whether it’s a feral cat or someone’s pet cat, the Champaign County Humane Society has a page with some useful information:

If you wish to have the cats trapped, neutered, and returned, reaching out to an organization that can provide that service would be the best course of action. If you reach out to your local animal shelter, they may be able to direct you to other organizations that provide this service if they do not provide it directly. If you simply wish to remove nuisance cats from your neighborhood, you should reach out to your local municipality (animal control) and see if they have any means of addressing the situation. It is uncommon for organizations to provide any type of relocation for free-roaming cats.

In theory, according to Champaign County ordinances, “Owners of cats shall prohibit such animals from running at large within a subdivided section of the county.” The penalty for violating this ordinance is modest a fine of $50.00 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense, and $200 for each subsequent offense.  In practice, we know these ordinances are rarely enforced. When they are, it’s likely because a neighbor called Animal Control, and in our community many folks don’t trust Animal Control due to past controversies. We wrote in 2021 about Champaign County Animal Control and their need for better and more transparent communication as well as a new director.

Thankfully at the time of writing, they do have a new director, and hopefully more bandwidth to provide reliable support for handling reports of stray animals. Contact information for the various municipal Animal Control Services in our county can be found on the Champaign County government webpage

If you must defy good sense and let your cat outside despite the risks of spreading disease, getting hit by a car, or destroying the environment, we have to assume that you are in one of the rare instances where your cat is completely unmanageable indoors. And in that case, there are a few things you can do to protect your pet as well as the environment. 

One option would be to build a “catio” which restricts the outdoor territory your cat has access to. Another option would be to take kitty outside on a leash and harness, though not all cats tolerate them. If these two options aren’t viable, the least you can do is purchase a Birdbesafe collar for your cat. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that Birdbesafe collars nearly halve the amount of bird murder conducted by a cat-wearing one. The fact that the collars make the wearer look like tiny, furry clowns is just a bonus.

We know that the odds of turning our community’s free-roaming pet cat population into a cadre of pampered always-indoor pets or at least less-murderous clown cats is low. Ultimately, it is the pet owner’s choice to decide how to keep their pet healthy, happy, and safe. But we hope that educating our readers on the very real adverse impacts being allowed to roam outdoors has on both the cat and the eco-system might convince at least a few people to make better choices. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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