Cat-agorizing Cat Owners to Reduce Environmental Harm caused by Domestic House Cats


My cat, Maple, looking longingly at the birds out the window. She stays inside most of the time and is allowed in the yard with constant supervision.

I am a proud cat owner. My phone is full of pictures of my fur baby sleeping and I feel honored when she decides to sleep in my lap. However, I am also concerned about the state of biodiversity and the drastic decline of bird populations globally. Two of my loves, cats and diverse ecosystems, are often pitted against each other. Why? Because cats are a major threat to biodiversity through predation and are susceptible to a variety of diseases that may be detrimental to public health and the health of other animals. 

For the safety of the ecosystems and the cats themselves, house cats belong indoors. This statement has been repeated by scientists around the world and the evidence continues to build up, but why don’t people listen?

One way authorities attempted to reduce the populations of outdoor domestic cats was by simply telling cat owners who let their pets roam free that they are wrong. It didn’t work. 


House cat perched on a bird feeder. Cats are skilled hunters and when they roam their neighborhoods they can have catastrophic effects on the local wildlife populations. Source: Creative Commons

Essentially this method assumes that cats are outdoors because their owners do not understand the impacts of their cats behavior. It actually  creates a disconnect between the conservationists attempting to remove what they see as an invasive predator and the cat owners who want to provide their feline friend with a high standard of living. It’s a tough situation and often escalates into conflict and a communication breakdown. One way to minimize this conflict is to see cat owners as partners in developing policy to reduce cat impacts. This approach would require engaging cat owners in a two way dialogue and collaborating with all those affected by the policies. 

Sarah Crowley and her colleagues analyzed the perspectives of cat owners across the United Kingdom to better understand how cat owners feel about domestic cat management and cat behavior. Through interviews and compiling letters to the editor to UK newspapers, the researchers used 62 statements to gauge the range of cat owner’s perspectives. Then the researchers asked 56 different people to rank the 62 statements based on how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement.

The researchers found five distinct perspectives of cat owners:

The Cherished Protector: These cat owners think of their feline as a member of the family and want to know that their cats are safe. Generally, they do not let their cat outdoors for fear of it being killed or injured. They also believe that hunting outside is just something cats do. 

The Freedom Defender: These cat owners want to give cats full freedom to roam and what they do while they are roaming, like hunt, is not a problem. They believe keeping cats inside doesn’t  provide cats with the necessary stimulation and verges on cruelty. They value the hunting ability of cats because it controls rodents near their property. 

The Tolerant Guardian: These cat owners would prefer it if their feline friends did not hunt, but also recognized that cats are carnivorous wild creatures who will inevitably do so. They may try to save the prey their cats killed and attempt to manage their cats behavior but at the end of the day, cats will do what cats will do. 

The Conscientious Caretaker: These cat owners believe that cats should have outdoor access but were also fine with indoor-only cats. These owners were worried about roaming but felt the benefits to the cat outweighed the risk. However, they oppose cat hunting and feel that a single cat could have a huge impact, particularly on birds. They believe that the owners should be responsible for managing hunting behavior.

The Laissez-faire Landlord: These cat owners do not think keeping a cat inside is cruel nor that cats require outdoor time but they did see the benefits of outdoor time for cats. These owners do not have an opinion about outdoor cats and hunting because they have never really considered it and may not know their cat hunts. Many express interest in intervening with their cats behavior if they knew their pet was causing other animals to suffer. 

Maple enjoys her supervised outdoor time hiding in the garden.

Not all cat owners fall within one of the categories and some may be a mixture of both, but this is a good first step in understanding the diversity of perspectives. As a cat owner, I am between a Cherished Protector and Conscientious Caretaker. My little fur baby is an indoor cat and is allowed in our backyard with constant adult supervision because I don’t want her killing birds and other animals in our backyard ecosystem. This also protects her from predators, traffic, and disease. In my mind, it’s a win-win. But other cat owners don’t feel the same way and it is a challenge for policy makers to bridge the gap between these diverse perspectives. 

With these perspectives in mind, there are a variety of methods policy makers can use to approach outdoor cats. These are summarized in the table below. 

PerspectivePolicy Considerations
Concerned ProtectorPrioritize cat safety rather than focus on the impacts of cats on wildlife. 
Freedom DefendersCompromise with those who have “working cats” that kill pests. 
Tolerant Guardians Use clear, accessible guidance to how to reduce killing and animal suffering from cats
Conscientious CaretakersEngage theis group as citizen scientists to develop and promote effective management and champion responsible pet ownership
Laissez-faire LandlordsMay be open to discussions about management than those with stronger viewpoints

A common thread throughout these perspectives is that cat owners value outdoor time for their pets, even among groups that were concerned about hunting and the consequential biodiversity loss. This may make it difficult for advocates to convince cat owners to keep their felines inside. However, the diversity of views shows that there is careful consideration and debate within the cat owner community and the culture could shift as new knowledge about the detrimental effects of outdoor cats is disseminated. 

The authors suggest that creating management tools rather than using a blanket regulation would be most effective in reducing the roof outdoor cats. This might include finding new ways to reduce the predation by cats both directly (reducing outdoor access, using collars to deter wildlife) or indirectly by making indoor environments more stimulating for cats like using toys to simulate hunting. 

Many cat owners take their cats for walks, just like a dog. This is a good way to get outdoor stimulation while also reducing the effect of cat hunting on wildlife. Source: Creative Commons

The data shows that while free outdoor cats are bad for biodiversity, owning a cat can be beneficial to human health. So for those of us with feline companions, it is best that we strive to be conscientious and think about what is best for the health of our pets and the health of our ecosystems. Please keep your cats inside. If possible, give them supervised outdoor time or take them for a walk...as a treat. 

Citation: Crowley, S.L, M. Cecchetti, and R.A. McDonald. Diverse perspectives of cat owners indicate barriers to and opportunities for managing cat predation of wildlife. 2020. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18(10):544-549. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2254

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Brianne Palmer

I am a PhD candidate at San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis studying how biological soil crusts respond and recover from fire. Most of my research is in coastal grasslands and sage scrub. We use DNA and field measurements to understand how cyanobacteria within biological soil crusts help ecosystems recover after low severity fires. I am also involved with local K-12 outreach within the Greater San Diego Metro Area.

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