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Pets on the Prowl

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2003

Missourians are blessed with an incredible assortment and abundance of wild creatures. We especially relish the fact that wildlife graces our urban and suburban areas, as well as our farms and fields. Many people put out birdseed and corn to attract birds and squirrels to their yards because they enjoy watching them. Ironically, they also put out the family cat and dog, both of which are the primary predators of urban and suburban wildlife.

Our pets provide comfort, companionship, and faithful service. We name them, and we pamper them to the point that they become part of the family. It's easy to forget that Tabby or Fido are instinctive hunters. A flutter of feathers or a twitch of a tail proves irresistible to them. Regardless of how tame they seem or how much food they eat at home, they will pursue prey.

My own aging 14-pound cat, Willy, is a good example. I usually keep him inside, but the other day he bolted through my legs when I opened the back door. He dove under the porch, and I couldn't lure him back inside.

A little over a half hour later, I spotted Willy with a dead titmouse clamped in his mouth. I was disappointed, but not surprised. In years past, all three of my cats have managed to catch voles, shrews, garter snakes, five-lined skinks, small birds, and even a few northern flickers during very limited outdoor excursions.

I try to keep my cats indoors, but more than half of the more than 60 million pet cats in America are allowed outdoors. Millions more "barn cats," unclaimed strays and feral cats never go indoors and primarily kill other animals for food. Some surveys have shown that the average outdoors cat will kill approximately 200 animals per year, and some of the best hunters might exceed 1,000 kills annually.

It doesn't require advanced mathematics to conclude that cats are killing millions upon millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians in the U.S. This huge harvest is threatening the existence of some species of birds, according to the American Ornithologist's Union, the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Cooper Ornithological Society. All have determined that cats have contributed to the decline of many bird species worldwide.

In Missouri, birds most likely to be consumed by cats include ground feeders and nesters such as doves, cardinals, juncos, dickcissels, sparrows, meadowlarks, bobwhites, and ruffed grouse. Hatchlings and fledglings of most species are even more vulnerable to cats than are the adults.

Prey species aren't the only victims here; native predators also suffer when house cats hunt. It's not that cats are necessarily better hunters than coyotes, bobcats or raptors, but they do have distinct advantages over the native competition. First, most cats receive some nourishment from humans. Whether it's generous portions of cat chow or table scraps tossed out for the transient tom, the availability of handouts is a source of supplemental energy that wild predators lack. This not only affords cats greater stamina on the hunt, but it also allows cat populations to endure declines in prey numbers that would starve native predators.

Second, cats are a protected predator. Their owners guard them against disease, competition and from being eaten by other predators.

Cats also have the benefit of being new to the American outdoors--at least in terms of evolution. America's wildlife has evolved specific adaptations that aid in eluding and defending against native predators, but not exotic ones.

Cats are major culprits in killing wildlife, but dogs also cause much damage. Some dog owners want their dogs to roam, but rarely are they aware of the trouble dogs can get into when left to their own devices. While few domestic dogs are as adept at capturing small prey as cats are, they do kill rodents, and they also take a toll on rabbits, moles, squirrels, turtles, waterfowl and even deer. Dogs enjoy tracking scents and pursuing all varieties of prey.

Deer and other wildlife can often escape dogs, but the chase itself endangers them. At any time of the year, deer may be driven into fences and across potentially hazardous roadways by dogs on the run.

During winter, wild animals must conserve their energy to maintain body heat and locate food. As their fat reserves are depleted, they have little energy left for fleeing. The stress of being harassed or attacked by dogs can cause pregnant animals to miscarry and weakened ones to die of exhaustion. Deer fawns lack the coordination and speed of adult deer and are especially easy prey for dogs in spring and early summer.

While there is, to date, no scientific evidence that free-ranging dogs significantly impact Missouri's deer or fur-bearing mammal populations, individual instances of disturbance do occur, resulting in injury or death for a variety of wild creatures.

In addition to the traumas of direct physical confrontation, both dogs and cats can also transmit diseases to their wild relatives. We often worry about domestic pets contracting rabies from skunks and raccoons, but rarely is the opposite scenario considered. Because they live in much higher densities than wild animals, dogs and cats sometimes serve as a concentrated reservoir for diseases. Coyotes, foxes, and wolves can contract canine distemper from dog encounters, while bobcats and cougars are susceptible to feline distemper, feline leukemia, feline infectious peritonitis and feline immunodeficiency virus carried by domestic cats. Other maladies that infected pets may transmit to wildlife include ringworm, toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis and rabies.

Urban sprawl has markedly increased interactions between pets and wild species. Census Bureau data showed a 9.3 percent increase in Missouri's population from 1990 to 2000 and estimates a similar annual rate of growth for the next 25 years. Those figures suggest even more pets in even more places.

Although it's unlikely we'll be able to reverse urbanization, we can reduce the carnage caused by free-ranging pets. All we have to do is keep them under control.

Both pets and people benefit when we make an effort to reign in our free ranging friends. Well-kept pets sustain fewer injuries, contract fewer diseases and bring home fewer fleas and ticks than free-ranging animals. They also birth fewer litters of unwanted offspring, have fewer run-ins with authorities and are less likely to succumb to untimely outdoor deaths. Controlling your pets will save you money and reduce the number of hassles and heartaches associated with pet ownership.

To protect wildlife from pets

  • Tell your friends, children, neighbors, and others about the threat of free ranging pets to Missouri's wildlife.
  • Keep cats indoors or in enclosed outdoor runs.
  • Keep dogs in a fenced yard, on a harness and lead, or under direct supervision.
  • Have your pet spayed or neutered.
  • Never abandon pets outside. Take them to a shelter instead.
  • Neuter and vaccinate "barn" cats and provide them with food. They will still kill unwanted rodents.
  • Only keep as many pets as you can feed, neuter, vaccinate, and properly care for.
  • Use baited live traps to capture strays and take them to shelters. Call your local humane society or conservation agent for assistance, if needed.
  • Eliminate pet bowls and garbage containers and other outdoor food sources.
  • Do not feed stray or feral animals unless you're committed to neutering and vaccinating them or taking them to a shelter.
  • Support pet licensing regulations and laws against pet abandonment and wildlife harassment.
  • Place bird houses, baths and feeders away from areas where cats can hide and ambush birds.
  • Initiate or support a local coalition of the American Bird Conservancy's "Cats Indoors!" Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats. More information can be found on their website, at <www.abcbirds.org>, or by calling (202) 452-1535.

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