02/01/2013 10:02 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

A Measured Response to a Recent Study on Cats

It seems as though some scientists are not cat lovers. According to a recent study that is being covered far and wide by many media outlets with sensational headlines, we cats are serial killers -- wiping out billions of birds annually, possibly making species extinct. As with all studies that become popular headline fodder, one must take it upon themselves to follow through with real research; for this specific topic, I have done the work for you to show that we are not -- despite the allegations -- murderous, efficient killing machines with genocidal tendencies.

First, let's take a look at the actual study. Unfortunately most of the data is hidden under a requirement to pay for access to the entire document, but we very clearly can see the true nature of this report in the very first paragraph anyway: "The magnitude of mortality they cause in mainland areas remains speculative, with large-scale estimates based on non-systematic analyses and little consideration of scientific data." Immediately it is clear they are making numbers up (the term they use is "extrapolating") to sensationalize their findings and receive worldwide recognition for a piece published in a scientific journal, with little or no scientific data to back it up. And to think, usually this information is buried deeply in the article -- here they mention it up front, never expecting cats like myself to look into the data provided. An equivalent to this type of publishing would be to say 'my next door neighbor's dog barks whenever someone enters or leaves our house; therefore, 95 percent of dogs bark all the time when someone is within 20 feet of them.' Some less-than-ethical scientists will regularly push out reports with sensational headlines to make a name for themselves by having their published article picked up by the wire (we sometimes see this when the media mentions extravagant reports about the health benefits/detriments of chocolate or coffee, which seem to directly contradict a headline they reported just months earlier.) As I am a firm believer in true science, I will not make a claim that 'most' or 'all' scientists do this without having data to back it up.

Second, let's look at some of the data for this report. "Predation on wildlife was observed to be universal among 326 farm cats in Illinois, and several studies were summarized as finding that less than 10 percent of rural cats do not kill wildlife. We therefore defined this parameter as a uniform distribution with minimum and maximum of 0.8 and 1, respectively." Part of the basis of this study is to estimate how many animals the 60-140 million feral cats kill, which is very difficult. The data they used for this involved tracking 326 rural farm cats -- assumed to be living in wide open spaces where the benefit to controlling prey (mice and birds that eat farmers crops) is necessary, assumed to most likely not have many humans within a close distance to rely upon for food, and just like most farm animals, serving a greater purpose to the continued prosperity of the farm. Urban ferals, of which there are very many, live a vastly different life -- which I can attest from my own personal experience having lived the life of a feral cat (well, for a few weeks as a kitten, anyway). Some, like myself, are lucky to be under the care and supervision of the local animal rescue groups, like Animal Allies, who have many dedicated volunteers that regularly go out to provide food and makeshift shelters (usually donated plastic bins with holes in the side and straw for warmth) to feral urban communities. Other ferals have found to rely on the kindness of human strangers -- as a feral, we may not trust you to pet or touch us, but evolutionarily speaking, it's much easier to go from one door to the next and meow for high-nutrient food, than it is to spend your afternoon expending all your energy chasing after one small sparrow. In fact, we have a feral that visits us regularly named 'Jerry', and he's known to visit many of the neighbors -- especially those with cats, as they're more likely to have cat food. (On an aside, Jerry is a male who my parents trapped and had neutered at a low-cost spay and neuter clinic -- if you have an outdoor feral who visits, it's very important to do this by getting information from your local rescue group, so you don't find yourself with dozens more kittens to feed!)

Finally, the real key to take away from this study that slams cats -- if you own a kitty, it is absolutely best to keep them inside. Many real studies have shown that by letting your cat outdoors unsupervised, you drastically shorten their lifespan by introducing them to potential diseases, parasites, accidents, predators, and more. Also, it is clear that a good number of well-fed indoor kitties will continue to hunt birds and mice outdoors, if only to keep sharp on their skills, or offer their family a present as a thanks for taking such good care of them. There are -- as always -- simple and elegant solutions if you have a cat that likes the outdoors: we own a Kritter Kommunity that sits on our deck -- it's weatherproof, but also folds up and can be stored when not in use. You can also browse Google for 'outdoor cat enclosures' to find many similar offerings, and this way your cat can enjoy the outdoors a bit while you can rest easy knowing they're supervised, nearby, and not picking up new diseases or 'presents'.

I have never hunted or killed, unless you count houseflies or moths that got in the house. Anytime an open door presents itself to me, the most I'll do is sit in the doorway and watch the world outside with fascination and appreciation of the beauty, the sounds, and the animals. Let us accept this new 'study' for what it really is -- a sensationalizing attempt to make a name for those involved in the report and for the media outlets to garner views, without any real scientific data to back it up. While the media will continue to report the exciting headlines, let us remind our friends and relatives of the facts about our cats. However, let's also use caution and common sense when it comes to keeping our pets in a safe, protected environment, so we both can enjoy a longer, more rewarding life together.

Always with love,
Hank (not convicted or charged with any murders*)

*excludes houseflies, occasional moth