A new study from Nature Communications uncovers the frightening truth about domestic felines: they kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year.
That’s right. Somehow between their naps and meowing, the domestic feline in the United States is engaged in a widespread holocaust against birds, chipmunks, and rats among others. Though this may not come as a surprise to some, the new meta-study finds a number two to four times higher than previously thought. And it means that the domestic cat represents one of the most deadly human-linked side effects on the mammalian and avian populations.
In devising their mathematical model, the researchers systematically sifted through the existing scientific literature on cat-wildlife interactions, eliminated studies in which the sample size was too small or the results too extreme, and then extracted and standardized the findings from the 21 most rigorous studies. The results admittedly come with wide ranges and uncertainties.
Nevertheless, the new report is likely to fuel the sometimes vitriolic debate between environmentalists who see free-roaming domestic cats as an invasive species — super predators whose numbers are growing globally even as the songbirds and many other animals the cats prey on are in decline — and animal welfare advocates who are appalled by the millions of unwanted cats (and dogs) euthanized in animal shelters each year.
All concur that pet cats should not be allowed to prowl around the neighborhood at will, any more than should a pet dog, horse or potbellied pig, and that cat owners who insist their felines “deserve” a bit of freedom are being irresponsible and ultimately not very cat friendly. Through recent projects like Kitty Cams at the University of Georgia, in which cameras are attached to the collars of indoor–outdoor pet cats to track their activities, not only have cats been filmed preying on cardinals, frogs and field mice, they’ve been shown lapping up antifreeze and sewer sludge, dodging under moving cars and sparring violently with much bigger dogs.
While your indoor-outdoor pet feline might be absolutely ferocious, by far the most deadly of the cats is the stray or feral variety. The debate, then, is what to do about this enormous problem, with humane societies fighting against the continued euthanization of sheltered animals.
One proposed solution is the trap-neuter-return program, which involves capturing unowned cats to have them vaccinated and spayed before returning them to an outdoor colony. Ideally, this would provide a path to compassionately reducing the large number of domestic cats that are feral or abandoned.
Nevertheless, the number of free roaming cats is reportedly growing, and this new study is a profound reminder that cats, however cuddly they may be, are born killers (pictured below).