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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.


We talked previously about the kitty cam study conducted by Kerrie Anne Loyd of the University of Georgia. More specifically, we talked about the fact that your cat may not be as safe as you would like to believe when it is outdoors.

In recent weeks, this same study has been re-earthed, producing attention-seeking headlines such as "Kitty Cam Will Expose Your Cat as a Cold-Blooded Murderer," (Mashable) and blatant statements such as "Cats are spending their nights looking for animals to murder." (Huffington Post)

While sensationalistic, these headlines and leading statements are not exactly what the study results concluded. In fact, this is what the study did conclude:

"Results indicate that a minority of roaming cats in Athens (44%) hunt wildlife and that reptiles, mammals and invertebrates constitute the majority of suburban prey. Hunting cats captured an average of 2 items during seven days of roaming. Carolina anoles (small lizards) were the most common prey species followed by Woodland Voles (small mammals). Only one of the vertebrates captured was a non-native species (a House Mouse)."

— National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams Project

As you can see, far from what the sensationalistic headlines would seem to indicate, the real results indicated that not all cats hunted. In fact, fewer than half of the cats in the study actually hunted. For those that did hunt, birds were not their most common prey.

What can we conclude from this?

  • Do outdoor cats hunt? Yes, some do. They’re predators, so that’s not unexpected. However, they are also prey for larger predators, which poses a substantial risk for outdoor cats; one risk among many.
  • Are outdoor cats systematically wiping out the native wildlife in their environment? I don’t believe this study presents enough solid facts to support that statement.
  • Are cats cold-blooded killers? Cats are cats. They’re predators by nature. However, according to this study, fewer than half of the cats studied actually did hunt or kill. Conclude what you will from that.

According to Dr. George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, "Cat predation is one of the reasons why one in three American bird species are in decline."

While I believe the decline of these bird species is serious and troubling, I question whether this study supports Dr. Fenwick’s statement. It seems to me that habitat loss from deforestation and urban development is likely a much bigger factor for the decline of many of our bird species. Not to mention the effect that pollution has had on all types of our native species.

One thing that I do believe is worth pointing out is the fact that the cats in this study were owned cats, all of them living within one geographical area. They were not feral or semi-feral. Results from a similar type of study in a feral population of cats, or even in a different location, might reveal strikingly different results. It’s possible that feral cats may be more efficient hunters than their more fortunate owned counterparts. I don’t believe we know the truth about that at this time.

I realize that this is a controversial issue. You’re free to agree or disagree with me. I do believe that pet cats live healthier, longer lives when housed indoors. My own cats are housed indoors and always have been. And that’s not likely to change any time in the near future, because I believe that is what’s best for them. Options such as *catios and leash/harness walking can allow for supervised outings for those cats that do enjoy being outdoors, without subjecting them to the risks of unsupervised outdoor outings.

However, at the same time, I also believe that managed TNR (with the word managed being quite important here) is an effective means of controlling the feral cat population. I have a difficult time condoning the extermination of feral cats even in the face of knowing that they probably do hunt. Again, I realize this is a controversial issue and many will disagree, some heatedly. That’s okay. Truthfully, I think some of the points made by opponents are valid, although it doesn’t change my position on the subject. For me, it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no perfect solution.

Ideally, all cats would have wonderful forever homes and would be housed indoors. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and that scenario is simply not going to happen any time soon. So we have to find solutions that work, and with which we can live, in the imperfect world we do live in.

Dr. Lorie Huston


Image: Sneaking cat by Hans Pama / via Flickr

Comments  9

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  • Bad Press
    08/27/2012 07:29am

    It's so unfortunate that cats get bad press. Many times the headlines you mention are all some people read and conclusions are drawn.

    In my opinion, TNR for feral colonies is the most humane solution for all involved.

    As for owned kitties, keeping them indoors prevents so many sad endings.

  • Thank you!
    08/27/2012 09:08am

    Thank you Dr. Huston for your balanced, thoughtful comments on outdoor cats. I, too, keep my cats strictly indoors or on my screened patio. I encourage all cat guardians to provide a safe environment for their felines that includes sufficient enrichment to provide them a happy, stimulating life.

    Our county has an estimated 420,000 free-roaming cats. I actively trap-neuter-return cats to help humanely control their population and to improve the cats' quality of life. I dream of the day when there is no longer such a huge population of abandoned animals, but cannot condone killing these innocent victims simply because some human abandoned them or their ancestors.

    The single most important thing EVERYONE can do to help end the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable cats and dogs is spay and neuter all pets and strays, and encourage everyone to do the same.

  • Habitat, Not Hunting
    08/27/2012 09:49am

    Habitat destruction is far more responsible than feral cats for bird species being in decline. When natural food and cover has been systematically destroyed and poisons freely applied to what's left, only the toughest opportunists can survive. Pretty birdhouses and feeders are no substitute for natural habitat.

    I live out in the country and do not mow, prune, remove dead trees, landscape, or spray. I have feral cats on my property (which I trap, neuter, and find homes for when possible) as well as raccoon, fox, and other natural predators. I also have many bird species represented, because they have habitat, not because there are no predators.

  • using ferals for profit
    08/27/2012 10:48am

    The media needs to sell papers and they need to get traffic to their websites to support them. It is unforgiveable that the media has seen fit to demonize cats who have no traditional homes, cats where a large number of their population has probably been abused, and certainly abused if you call abandonment abuse (many definitions do). If feral cats and homeless cats were TRULY the bloodthirsty problem the media says and or implies, people would be out in force killoing every last one of them. Since that is not happening in every single place where there are feral cats, we can see that this is truly NOT the problem they make it out to be. Shame on the media for using the homeless for profit.

  • using ferals for profit
    08/27/2012 10:48am

    The media needs to sell papers and they need to get traffic to their websites to support them. It is unforgiveable that the media has seen fit to demonize cats who have no traditional homes, cats where a large number of their population has probably been abused, and certainly abused if you call abandonment abuse (many definitions do). If feral cats and homeless cats were TRULY the bloodthirsty problem the media says and or implies, people would be out in force killoing every last one of them. Since that is not happening in every single place where there are feral cats, we can see that this is truly NOT the problem they make it out to be. Shame on the media for using the homeless for profit.

  • Thank you ...
    08/27/2012 03:41pm

    ... Dr. Huston, for your reasonable perspective on this issue.

    To keep close track of what goes on with cats, especially feral communities, please visit


    This is Peter Wolf's blog. He envisions "A society in which all cats are adequately cared for." His mission is "To improve the lives of feral cats through a more informed, conscientious discussion of feral cat issues in general, and TNR in particular."

    Thanks, again, Dr. Huston. I was nervous you were going to be in agreement with the side which believes cats are "murderers." I'm so glad you weren't!

  • outdoor cats
    08/27/2012 09:27pm

    So which is the greater risk - outdoor cats on the environment or the environment on outdoor cats? A neighbor has a sign imploring drivers to slow down. It says (in part) "cars - 4, cats - 0" How many of his cats have to be run over before he keeps them inside?
    I'm not at all happy about this, but my dog has killed 2 cats in our back yard - one feral, one pet. (I now restrict my dog outside. Both cats were killed when I let my dog out for his early morning potty break. Between the cats, skunks, and racoons, he is now allowed out on leash only from dusk to dawn.)

    We seem to have plenty of birds and lizards in our yard. It seems to me, cat safety is the reason to keep cats inside.

  • The impact of predation?
    08/28/2012 02:44pm

    Lorie, you’re being too generous when you “question whether this study supports Dr. Fenwick’s statement.” Fenwick and the American Bird Conservancy have been conducting their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats for at least 15 years now without ever providing a shred of evidence to support statements such as the one included here.

    On the contrary, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that predation by cats has no discernible impact on bird populations.

    Indeed, in their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour, researchers Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner thoroughly reviewed 61 predation studies, concluding rather unambiguously that “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations” (Fitzgerald & Turner, 2000).

    Something else to keep in mind: predators—cats included—tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. At least two studies have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy that birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars). (Møller & Erritzøe, 2000; Baker, Molony, Stone, Cuthill, & Harris, 2008).

    As the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds notes: “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide… It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations” (RSPB, 2011).

    You’re correct that this is a controversial topic—due in no small part to the misinformation routinely disseminated by Fenwick and his colleagues at ABC. Ironically, their misguided approach has done little or nothing to protect birds.

    Peter J. Wolf

    Literature Cited
    • Baker, P. J., Molony, S. E., Stone, E., Cuthill, I. C., & Harris, S. (2008). Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, 150, 86–99.
    • Fitzgerald, B. M., & Turner, D. C. (2000). Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations. In D. C. Turner & P. P. G. Bateson (Eds.), The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour (2nd ed., pp. 151–175). Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Møller, A. P., & Erritzøe, J. (2000). Predation against birds with low immunocompetence. Oecologia, 122(4), 500–504.
    • RSPB. (2011). Are cats causing bird declines? [Electronic Version]. Retrieved October 26, 2011, from http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.aspx

  • Stop Preying in Cats
    09/18/2012 12:48pm

    Thank you for this article. But I have to agree with Peter Wolf in that you were too generous to ABC. Peter Wolf of Vox Felina has done extensive reading of all research related to cats and birds and is absolutely right that American Bird Conservancy has been blaming cats for 15 years without a shred of sound scientific research.

    But I know you have enough veterinary journals to keep up with. However your article helps us educate others with the facts. Peter and I (though our separate blogs and other efforts) work hard to educate the public about cats and when newspapers and ABC get on national TV with their unproven statements, it sets us back and hurts cats.

    From my personal experience, as someone who cares for a colony of 20 cats, I can say that I only see one dead bird a year. And I walk the grounds regularly, get on hands in knees in bushes to pull out bits of trash that flies around...

    I love birds too and enjoy watching them from my home.Their decline is not from cats but the reasons you mentioned.

    Another commenter (Michelle Adams) hit the nail on the head. As a marketing professional but also as an educator about cats, it's painfully obvious to me that newspapers use misleading headlines about cats to make a profit. I believe American Bird Conservancy is doing the same--forever blaming cats to raise money to pay for their jobs. They are too small to fight deforestation and urban development. Cats are an easy target for ABC to grossly exaggerate their predatorial nature to fan the flames of fury and get bird lovers to donate.

    I love birds, enjoy watching them daily from indoors along with my indoor cats, but it's time for ABC to stop misleading the public.

    This posting no doubt was sparked by a 20/20 segment two weeks ago called "Kitty Cam". Sadly the report was one-sided and the reporter interviewed George Fenwick of Am. Bird Conservancy but had no cat experts on air. It's very sad when a major news station fails to do any journalistic research and balanced report.

    To read more about the episode and to sign a petition asking ABC News to do a followup report with cat experts, visit

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