Ruffling some feathers: What to do with outdoor cats?

Almost everyone has seen them: stray cats that are homeless and live outside, or cats whose owners allow them to spend time outdoors. Regardless of the type of outdoor cat, there are those who say these cats catch pests and should have the right to live outside while others contend that they cause problems for the natural environment. Though cat predation of local wildlife has been previously studied, who is it that is really concerned about the issue of outdoor cats and how do their opinions differ or coincide about what to do with them?

Image taken by Tomi Tapio

Image taken by Tomi Tapio

A recent study published in Biological Conservation sought to answer those questions. They noted that the liveliest debate over outdoor cat management strategies occurred between two main stakeholders: wildlife advocates and animal rights activists. Rather than simply focusing on public opinion polls, the researchers find that we must take into consideration the input of these stakeholders in order to find what the two groups have in common in terms of perceptions and strategies for managing outdoor cats.

The wildlife advocates, sometimes thought of as the bird nerds and tree huggers, are often represented by the Audubon Society, a bird and conservation advocacy organization, representing the first stakeholder in this issue. As a group, they tend to highlight the risks that outdoor cats present to wildlife, proposing euthanization to manage the cat populations. Across the aisle sit the animal rights activists, or “crazy” cat people, who underscore the benefits of outdoor cats and propose trap-neuter-return (TNR) strategies for management. Often the media has portrayed these two groups as being completely polarized rather than pointing to some of their commonalities, something the researchers wanted to investigate.

In their study, survey methodology was employed to get a representative sample of the Florida general population, as well as representative sample of both Audubon and TNR stakeholders, to then use both univariate and multivariate analyses to examine the data. The researchers defined outdoor cats as those that may be owned or un-owned, that may be social or unsocial, and that may spend all or some of their time outside.

The aims of the study were to identify similarities in stakeholder opinion – what do the bird nerds and cat lovers have in common? –  about management of outdoor cats, specifically examining their attitudes and beliefs about outdoor cats, perceptions of cat impacts on the environment, and attitudes about how to manage them.

The results do show some commonalities, but also some key differences. Cat advocates, as measured by support of TNR policies, expressed significantly more positive attitudes about outdoor cats than Audubon members or even the general public. They were also significantly more likely to agree with the positive impacts of outdoor cats to people and nature. Conversely, the Audubon members not only expressed negative attitudes about outdoor cats, but also identified with negative statements about the consequences of outdoor cat populations.

Members of the general public, however, tended to fall more toward neutral responses. This highlights the problem of exclusively using public opinion surveys without considering key stakeholders. Because the general public does not have a strong opinion about this subject, they are particularly vulnerable to biased terminology that can result in inaccurate responses, underscoring the need for neutral survey wording.

Yet despite their differences, there are there are key similarities among the conservationists, animal rights organizers, and the general public. A majority of respondents (83 percent) preferred non-lethal management methods, while only 13 percent preferred lethal management and 4 percent said to do nothing. The most preferred management method was trap-neuter-release (TNR), with the general public more supportive if this were the least costly option. There was also widespread support for mandatory rabies vaccination and own identification.

Some are still not completely satisfied, however. Remaining concerns about TNR methods, especially by some Audubon members underscores the importance of developing new, non-lethal management methods such as collar-mounted bibs, cat free zones, mandatory spay and neutering, and a limit to the number of cats per household. It remains unknown, however, whether any of these methods would gain more widespread support than TNR, so for the time being, we’re left with that.

For conservation efforts in general, it is important to understand public opinion, including those of stakeholders, about animals and the environment because these attitudes can influence how we manage or address certain animal populations. For outdoor cat populations, it is important to not only consider stakeholder opinion, but actively work to find commonalities in opinions and strategies to work toward more effective management solutions that are humane to cats while also protecting the natural wildlife. That way both the bird nerds and cat lovers can walk away satisfied.


Wald, D.M, Jacobson, S.K, and Levy, J.K. Outdoor cats: Identifying differences between stakeholder beliefs, perceived impacts, risk, and management. Biological Conservation 167: 414-424.

By Colleen Fugate (modern)

This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Blogs 2012-2013. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ruffling some feathers: What to do with outdoor cats?

  1. woodsman001 says:

    If you have a rodent problem, then this is being caused by 1 (or both) of 2 things.

    1. Your community’s sanitation situation is abysmal, and you need to go back to basic sanitation education classes.

    2. You have an overabundance of cats.

    Cats are actually one of the poorest methods of rodent control of all (contrary to centuries of idiots proposing the same and also failing for centuries). Not only are cats a highly destructive invasive species that directly destroys many valuable native species and also transmit many deadly zoonotic diseases to both humans and all other animals, further exacerbating the death-rate of your native predators, but there are hundreds (if not thousands) of native species on every continent that are much better suited for the purpose. On top of that, most cats run from larger rodent species.

    What happens is that cats destroy all your valuable native rodent predators (rat snakes, shews, etc.), or displace them (read: starve them to death, species like owls, hawks, fox, etc.), and then the cats destroy only the rodents that they can find (key point). Guess what? Rodents don’t reproduce in places where cats can get to them. They reproduce in burrows and places too small for ANY cat to get to them. So what you end up with is a happy predator/prey balance of nothing but cats and rodents infesting your lands and homes.

    The rodents reproduce in burrows and holes where they are happy to reproduce forever to entertain your cats the rest of their lives, and make your own lives miserable, on into infinity. On top of that, when cats infect rodents with cat’s Toxoplasma gondii parasite, this hijacks the minds of rodents to make the rodents attracted to where cats urinate. (Google for: Parasite Hijacks the Mind of Its Host) Cats actually attract disease-carrying rodents to where cats are (and the cats then contract these diseases on contact with, or being in proximity to, these rodents). Further increasing the cat/rodent/disease density of this happy predator/prey balance. It has been documented many many times. The more cats you have, the more rodents you get. I suggest you Google for those studies.

    Look at any island that has been invaded by cats and rodents for hundreds of years as some simple and concrete proof of this cat/rodent balance. All the native wildlife is now gone, the cats had destroyed the island’s ecosystem, with nothing but a healthy population of cats and rodents thriving on into infinity. Cats DO NOT get rid of rodents! I don’t care how many centuries that fools will claim that cats keep rodents away, they’ll still be wrong all these centuries. Civilizations of humans have come and gone in great cities, yet their cats and rodents remain.

    No cat population anywhere has EVER been able to eradicate rodents. But native predators can — easily. Many reptiles and the more voracious smaller carnivorous mammals can destroy rodents at their very source. Even the tiny shrew can wipe out rodents, they’re specifically designed to prey on rodents in places where rodents safely hide from your proposed (and insane) cat-mouser solution. Your cats destroy these valuable shrews when your cats spot them — your cats ALWAYS destroying even better NATIVE rodent predators. Nice plan. So smart!

    See how that works? No? Didn’t think so. You’d need at least a high-school freshman level of education in biology to know this. Even children in elementary-school are aware of these things today.


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