Cats are extremely popular household pets - over a third of Canadian households share their homes with at least one cat. Unfortunately, the rise in cat populations exceeds that of Canadian homes, and many of these pets are homeless – stray, abandoned, or feral. Few (~10%) are reunited with their owners, shelters are full, and these animals face poor conditions outdoors. The results also translate into potential human and environmental health concerns, and devastating impacts to native wildlife.
Cats in our society typically are not valued the same as dogs, but we owe them the same level of care, which includes providing a safe, enriched environment, supervising them if they go outdoors, and providing medical care and love. One of the surprisingly benefits may be a deeper cat-human bond. As domesticated, non-native animals, humans are responsible for their care.
With many Canadian cities, including Halifax, facing a cat overpopulation crisis, there are many simple steps that cat owners or prospective cat owners can do to ease the situation.
1. Keep your cat indoors
Free-roaming and unsupervised outdoor cats face various threats outdoors, such as parasitic infections, and communicable diseases, severe injury from fights with other cats or dogs, predation by wildlife, poisoning, as well as accidents and injury from vehicles or structures. Your cat also risks becoming lost or homeless when allowed outdoors unsupervised. The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as cat care organizations, rescues, and SPCAs promote the benefits to cat when kept indoors.
Did you know that indoor cats can live up to 10 years longer than cats that go outside?
2. Provide lots of enrichment for your indoor cat
Like any pet, cats require stimulation and an environment in which to fulfil instinctual natural behaviours- such as hunting, hiding, perching, scratching, and sleeping. Providing toys, interactive food dispensers, cat trees, scratching posts, clean litter boxes, and window ledges are all examples. Take time to play with your cat, the same you would with a dog.
3. Transition your outdoor cat to a full time indoor cat or commit to making your next cat an indoor cat
The most straightforward way to accustom your cat to indoor life is to keep cats inside from the first day you get them; kittens kept indoors usually will not show interest in the outdoors as they age. If your cat is currently an outdoor cat, there are tips and tricks to transition them to being indoors. If this is not a possibility for you, consider keeping future cats as indoor cats.
Many sources recommend transitioning cats indoor during the cold winter months, when time spent outdoors is minimized. Transitioning can be aided by supplementing with safe, supervised outdoor options (see points 4,5)
4. Allow your cat supervised outdoor time in a catio
Increasingly popular as safe outdoor options for cats, are cat patios, or ‘catios’, decks, outdoor enclosures, and window boxes- all allow cats to experience the outdoors while staying safe. Check out
- Catio Spaces and Habitat Haven, or simply build your own.
(image credit: catiospaces.com)
5. Harness or Leash train your cat so you can enjoy the outdoors together
Though traditionally viewed as an activity for dogs, cats can also be trained to wear and enjoy a harness. Start at a young age if you can, go slowly with training and use lots of positive reinforcement: http://catsandbirds.ca/research/harness-training-your-cat/
*note: we never recommend leaving a harnessed cat unattended
(Image credit: Rachael McNeil)
6. Join the EAC’s Allied Cats network and support Nature Canada’s Cats and Birds Program
Make the commitment to joining the EAC’s network of Allied Cats- cats which lead happy, safe, and healthy lives indoors or with supervised outdoor access. When you sign up, your cat will receive a personalized certificate with your cat’s picture, and a window decal that identifies that indoor cats dwell in your home. These cats along with their humans are helping to protect millions of birds and other wildlife that are otherwise injured or killed in Canada each year by free-roaming cats.
For more info and to sign up, visit our Allied Cats page.
7. Take action by supporting local movements to adopt Responsible Pet Ownership guidelines for cats
Seventeen of the 20 most populous municipalities across Canada include provisions for cats in the municipal policy framework: Send a letter to your municipality to urge them to act to keep cats safe and save bird lives.
8. Obtain your next cat from a local shelter, and prevent your own cat from breeding, by spaying or neutering
Un-spayed and unneutered pet cats can contributing to cat overpopulation and may begin breeding at 6 months of age. Ensure your pets are spayed or neutered, and vow to obtain pet cats from local shelters and rescues- even though you may be able to find homes from any kittens that are bred, it may displace a cat already in a shelter and looking for a home.
9. Share this information with your friends
Share these messages with friends! Our projects aim to increase awareness about the importance of caring for cats in a way that benefits both cats, and our native wildlife. These tips can help spread positive messaging, and lead to more cats having safe and healthy homes!
FAQ's about outdoor cats
How do we know that cats are killing birds if most of us never see it happen?
We know cats hunt wildlife because they sometimes bring their catches home to their owners. However, not all cats do this. To estimate the number of birds killed by cats, studies have observed cats’ behaviour, or analyzed their fecal matter. These studies have shown that the actual number of birds, and other wildlife, caught by cats is much greater than what we typically observe. A recent study from the National Geographic and the University of Georgia used "kittycams" to observe outdoor cats' behaviour. As little as 25% of caught prey is brought home.
Do bells stop cats from preying on birds?
Studies from England and Australia have shown that wearing bells on
collars does not stop cats from stalking and attacking birds. While the number of birds caught can decrease, cats are skilled hunters and can quickly learn to overcome the handicap of a bell. Wild animals, like birds, do not associate a ringing bell with danger and may not flee the pursuing cat. Young birds are especially vulnerable because they are still learning to fly and cannot quickly flee an attacker - even with warning.
My cat is well fed. Why would she prey on wildlife?
A cat’s instinct to hunt is very strong and has nothing to do with hunger. Even well-fed or over-fed cats will still target birds and other wildlife.
My cat has never brought home birds. Could he be hunting without my knowledge?
Not every bird caught by cats will be brought home. Studies in Kansas and Wisconsin have analyzed cat feces and found evidence of birds. In many cases, the owners did not even realize their cats were preying on birds.
Why should I care about birds?
We depend on healthy populations of birds to control pests like rodents and insects, distribute seeds, and tell us about the state of our environment. Additionally, birds support our local economy by attracting nature-watching tourists. Finally, Canadian laws protect birds. Under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, it is an offense to injure or kill a migratory bird. Even with protection, one-third of the bird populations in the Maritimes are declining. We must all do our part to protect our native wildlife.
How can I make the transition indoors easier for my cat?
According to the American Bird Conservancy, the transition from outdoor to indoor can be gradual or sudden. You could keep your cats indoors for longer periods of time between trips outdoors, or you could bring them indoors on a permanent basis. No matter the method it is important to make the transition easier for your cat by giving him or her lots of attention and play time. Alternatively, you could train your cat to walk on a leash, or you could build an outdoor enclosure. The leash or enclosure will allow your cat to enjoy the outdoors without risking harm to the cat or wildlife. Keep Animals Safe, and Nature Canada websites have valuable resources for leash training and enclosures.
- Nature Canada Cats and Birds
- NS SPCA
- Halifax Animal Services Responsible Cat Ownership
- Keep Animals Safe
- Canadian Federation of Humane Societies
- American Association of Feline Practitioners