It is generally accepted that society has the right to enact laws and bylaws that may infringe on some individual rights but are for the greater good. Such laws range from the requirement to be licensed and insured before driving a motor vehicle to the control of dogs. It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to insist that animal control laws such as apply to dogs should also apply to cats. There are sound reasons, backed by scientific studies, that support the licensing and control of cats.
Cats are significant predators of birds and other wildlife, mainly small mammals such as field mice, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, but cats also kill significant numbers of lizards and other small reptiles. While it is true that cats are carnivores by nature, domestic cats are not native to North America and are not a natural part of North American ecosystems.
So how many cats do we have and how many birds and animals do cats kill every year? In the U.S. the pet cat population is estimated at just about 80 million, not counting the estimated 60 to 100 million homeless and feral cats. Only about 35 per cent of pet cats are kept exclusively indoors. Since the Canadian human population is about 10 per cent of the U.S. population we can assume that there are about eight million pet cats in Canada and another six to 10 million homeless and feral cats.
Controlled studies in the U.S. show that even well-fed pet cats kill up to 100 animals and birds per year. Extrapolating that figure to Canada means our pet cats kill up to 500 million birds and small animals per year. Other studies have shown that about 20 to 30 of the prey of cats are birds so that means that Canadian cats might kill as many as 100 million birds per year. Even to me that seems like an incredible number, but even if these figures are wrong by 50 or 60 per cent (and there is no reason to think they are) that is still an intolerable toll on birds that are already suffering huge population declines from other threats, primarily loss of habitat.
Some people think that free-roaming cats help to control rodent populations, and within a single farmer’s feed bin that might be true but on a large scale it has been found that cat predation may facilitate the spread of house mice at the expense of native rodents. Small rodents are an important part of maintaining diverse ecosystems and are prey for birds such as great horned owls.
On the positive side, cats that remain indoors lead safer and longer lives. Our household includes both a cat and a dog. The dog, when outdoors, is either in our yard or on a leash. The cat has never been outdoors and consequently has not fallen prey to the local coyotes nor suffered from fleas or ticks.
If you are a cat owner, don’t think you can save the wildlife by putting a bell around the cat’s neck. Unless the bell weighs enough to immobilize the cat, they simply don’t work. Studies show that cats soon learn to move so that the bell doesn’t ring and even when it does, many birds don’t associate the sound of bells with danger.
To see the studies behind this column go to www.abcbirds.org. The BCSPCA magazine Animal Sense for Spring/Summer 2011 also has good information about cat predation.
Penticton and the RDOS don’t need to be concerned about being the first to implement a cat control bylaw. There is ample precedence in B.C. and across Canada as well as in the U.S. for such bylaws. In B.C., Victoria, North Vancouver, Central Saanich, Coquitlam and North Saanich are some of the jurisdictions that have bylaws in place. Elsewhere in Canada, Calgary, Edmonton, London and Saskatoon are amongst the cities with cat control bylaws.
The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club meets each month on the fourth Thursday of the month except June, July and August. Our next meeting will be Sept. 22. Meetings are held in the basement hall of the Penticton United Church on Main Street at 7:30 p.m. To find out more about our club and our summer outings check out our website sonc.tripod.com.
Robert Handfield is past-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club.