There has been a big debate on the Internet recently about whether cats should be let outside or not. It is a long-term debate and it is hotting up. The debate is becoming more vociferous but people have entrenched views and therefore they do not change their views despite the debate.
Some genuine and respected experts support letting the domestic cat go outside, one of whom is Dr John Bradshaw the anthrozoologist and author of the well-known book “Cat Sense”.
The starting point from the perspective of natural cat behavior is to let cats go out; then, firstly, Bradshaw makes the point that there is, as yet, no convincing demonstration in studies that keeping domestic cats indoors has a beneficial effect upon wildlife populations. Many will say that is incorrect but they’ll be wrong. There are no conclusive studies on nationwide domestic cat predation.
The usual argument is that outdoor domestic cats kill song birds and those who argue for keeping cats indoors bandy around massive figures about the number of birds killed by cats but these are all estimates or at best guesstimates and therefore cannot be trusted.
Dr Bradshaw says that cats are usually lazy killers by which he means that normally individual animals that have been weakened by disease starvation or through old age are preyed upon by cats.
I would add to that doemstic cats primarily attack small mammals such as rodents and the most common argument against cats being let out doors is to protect birds but you will find that birds are not a priority as prey for the cat and as Dr Bradshaw states the cat is likely to attack weakened or infirm birds.
Feral cats are a different matter. In America there are many effective native predators which prevents the feral cat from flourishing in the wild unless they are being fed by people. Therefore, Dr Bradshaw states, the real issue is how to manage feral cats rather than to restrict domestic cats to an indoor life.
Dr Bradshaw allows his cats 24-hour access to the outside. Where he lives, he states that there is a large rat population and he sees his cats hunting and killing rats. His cats keep down the rat numbers in his garden. He makes the point that rats are also predators and much worse than cats in terms of vectors of human disease. He would rather his cats kept down the rat population than using poisons.
Therefore, Dr Bradshaw has no regrets in letting his cats go outside and do what they are good at doing.
He accepts that there may be some collateral damage. Although, he states that there is no evidence that outdoor domestic cats affect the number of songbirds.
He does state that under some circumstances there may be strong arguments for keeping a cat indoors permanently. One reason is that some cats have characters which are suited to being indoors full-time. These cats may not even wish to go outdoors or are reluctant to do so. An enriched indoor environment should be created.
I will quote his own words which summarise what he thinks about living cats outdoors,
“….. In my opinion, the decision whether to restrict a cat to the indoors should be the owner’s, based on the environment around the home and the background of the cat they own.”
The environment should be safe for a cat when outside or as safe as possible and the owner’s assessment should be based upon the cat’s personality.
The author of the book, “Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets”, Jessica Pierce, thinks along similar lines to Dr Bradshaw. She says that the argument as to whether you should let your cat outside boils down to what each individual care needs and where they live. Some cats need to go outside much more than other cats.
It is not satisfactory to make blanket decisions and recommendations about cats never being allowed to go outside or indeed the opposite argument that all domestic cats should be allowed outside.
She does argue too that we should do what we can to mitigate dangers to a cat where he/she goes outside. This is common sense. Also people should do what they can to mitigate against cats preying on animals.
Hal Hertzog, Prof of psychology at Western Carolina University prefers allowing domestic cats to go outside.
The general conclusion is that a cat owner needs to take a sensible, commonsense view as to whether they should cat outside depending upon the usual variables such as the cat’s character and the environment together with mitigating preying on birds.
Dr Bradshaw encourages cat owners to provide cat proof bird feeders and nesting boxes for example. This supports birds and compensates for the destruction of habitat caused by the creation of the plot of land upon which the cat owner’s home stands.
This argument is a reminder that humans are far more skilled at killing birds indirectly through the activities than feral and domestic cats can ever be.