Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region
Deer Flat NWR
13751 Upper Embankment Rd Nampa, ID 83686
Phone: 208-467-9278
Fax: 208-467-1019

Pets and wildlife don't mix

Americans love their pets. Americans also love wildlife. Unfortunately, the pets that we love can threaten the wildlife we love.

Cat owners often tell of a dead bird, mouse, or lizard "present" left on the welcome mat or, worse, on the living room rug. Domestic cats have been estimated to kill more than a billion small mammals and hundreds of millions of birds each year. Although the death toll is staggering, it is not surprising when you consider that there are 40 million pet cats allowed to roam free, and millions of additional stray cats.

Although some of the animals killed by pet cats are pests like house mice and rats, many more are native animals. This time of year, our pets pose an even higher threat to some particularly vulnerable animals, such as ground-nesting birds like pheasants and quail, as well as young birds and mammals. With wildlife populations already declining due to loss of habitat and other factors, loss of wildlife to pets further reduces these populations. In addition to stressing populations, cats also compete with native predators. In an area with large numbers of free-roaming cats, cats can deplete food sources for native predators like owls, hawks, foxes, and snakes.

Although dogs are probably less successful hunters than cats, a dog on an unsuccessful hunt can still harm wildlife. Animals chased by dogs spend their energy on escaping. Being chased by a dog, especially for young or pregnant animals, might mean the difference between having and not having the energy to survive.

Unfortunately, pets that are allowed to roam free are threatening wildlife populations locally. We regularly see cats and dogs on the refuge without an owner in sight at the Refuge.

What is the solution to the conflict between pets and wildlife? Keep your dogs on a leash and keep your cats indoors.

Contrary to popular belief, making sure that pets are well fed will not solve the problem. Even well fed cats and dogs continue to hunt. In one study, cats eating their favorite food were presented with a small, live rat. All the cats stopped eating just long enough to kill the rat, then returned to the food.

Putting bells on cats' collars will also not solve the problem. Some cats learn to stalk prey without ringing the bell. In other cases, the bell rings too late to warn the prey, or the prey don't consider a ringing bell to be a threat. A study in Great Britain found that cats with bells actually killed slightly more animals, on average, than cats without bells.

Fortunately, Americans needn't give up their pets or their wildlife. In fact, protecting wildlife from our pets also protects the pets. Cats and dogs that are allowed to roam free are at greater risk of acquiring parasites and diseases, of being killed or injured by cars or other animals, and of accidental poisoning. Because of these and other risk factors, indoor cats typically live more than three times as long as outdoor cats.

There are a number of things that pet owners can do to protect wildlife and their pets:

  • Keep cats indoors. Two web sites offer tips about how to turn your outdoor cat into a happy indoor cat. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Bird Conservancy.
  • Keep dogs on leashes. Keeping dogs leashed is particularly important in "wild places," like parks and wildlife refuges, where unleashed dogs are more likely to encounter wildlife.
  • If you need a "farm cat" to control rodents, keep the minimum number of cats, and be sure they are spayed or neutered. Well-fed, spayed female cats stay closest to home, and therefore do the best job of controlling rodents. Better yet, use rodent-proof storage and construction techniques.
  • Keep outdoor cats indoors at night when they would be more effective predators.
  • Don't feed stray cats, and eliminate garbage and outside pet dishes that may attract strays.
  • Never dispose of unwanted cats by releasing them in rural areas.
Last updated: October 1, 2012