Conservation Currents: Dogs and cats: To be, or not to be, outside?

When you know what they could be doing, there is no question. Once outside and on their own, “Fluffy” the cat and “Fido” the dog have a natural instinct to track, chase, attack and kill other species. The Dog Owner’s Guide article “The Call of The Wild” states, “Once a dog targets its prey, chemical reactions in the brain take over and the chase is on.”

The Pet Demographic Population Fact Sheet estimates that there are 74 to 86 million cats in the United States. A separate study estimates that a little over half of these cats are kept indoors. It is estimated that there are 70 to 78 million pet dogs in the U.S. It is thought that 75 percent of the dog population around the world is left to roam free. Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine calls these pets predators by nature. “They hunt because their instincts tell them to, not because they are hungry.”

According to an article in the journal Nature, domestic cats in the United States kill somewhere between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds a year as well as 6.1 to 22.3 billion small mammals and other wildlife. Dogs also kill wildlife, either directly or as a consequence of their actions. The website states that “Dogs can sometimes cause the direct death of wild animals they chase, but more frequently they cause their prey to expend significant energy to save their life at a time when they are just barely surviving and into a state of malnutrition that allows other predators to then kill them. Pregnant animals are particularly vulnerable to this. Often the act of a pet harrying wildlife turns ugly, with significant injuries and death of the wild animal, and its eggs or young, being the result.”

Rosenhagen also points to the impact unrestrained pets have on wildlife. “Young animals, particularly fledgling birds just learning to fly, are especially at risk. For wildlife, an attack is a horrifically terrifying experience. Often these animals die, but even the ones who are brought to a clinic for care face a scary, painful recovery make more difficult by the stress of being in captivity.” With their bites domestic pets also pass along harmful bacteria to wildlife, which often leads to their ultimate death. Dogs can also pass along diseases to others through the abundant feces that they leave on trails. Rosenhagen also points out that pet owners who suggest that it satisfies pets to be out in the wild and roaming freely should realize that it “places them in great danger of being injured or killed by predators, automobiles, or contracting a disease.” She points out that “Indoor cats live longer and are much less likely to get attacked or injure themselves.”

For cat owners who try to be proactive it has also been shown that “belling” a cat is ineffective in protecting wildlife because wildlife have not learned to associate the sound of a bell to a predator. Humans are also impacted by the trauma of killing or maiming someone else’s pet or by witnessing such an event. The veterinarian cost of treating injuries caused by wildlife or human vehicles also carries a high cost.

What can you do to avoid problems? Take your dog for a walk in designated “dogs allowed” areas. On a leash, your dog also won’t get into a fight with a skunk, porcupine or another walker’s dog. It also won’t jump up on a child or grandparent or eat something smelly on the road before you can stop them. Dogs are also social animals and enjoy being with other dogs, so a dog park is another way to give them a fun outing. Remember to bring a couple of plastic baggies to clean up after your dog no matter where you go.

Cats are more particular about what they consider fun and are highly territorial. Some experts suggest giving them an upper walkway/shelf to escape charging children or other pets (boa constrictor perhaps), and providing them with toys to interact with when they are of a mind to. Go to this excellent website for great information, and short articles about common cat issues that you might experience.