The American Bird Conservancy, co-mother of the newly formed East Cascade Audubon Society, reports there are more than 90 million pet cats in the U.S., the majority of which roam outside at least part of the time. In addition, millions of stray and feral cats are prowling our cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Scientists estimate that each year free-roaming cats - well-fed pets as well as feral cats - kill hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Cat predation is an added stress to wildlife populations already struggling to survive habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and other human impacts.
On the other hand, free-roaming killer-cats are exposed to injury, disease, parasites, and motor vehicles, in addition to becoming lost, stolen or poisoned. Outdoor cats also transmit diseases and parasites, such as rabies, cat-scratch fever and toxoplasmosis to other cats, wildlife and people.
Right here in Deschutes County, most of the more than 158,000 residents have pet cats; a fact that makes the many pet-supply businesses in Redmond, Bend, Sisters and LaPine purr with joy. How many are outdoor cats and how many are indoor cats is hard to determine, but it's probably safe to say that most are outdoor cats.
There are two distinct ways to look at outdoor cats. One side thinks that a cat cannot enjoy a "full life" without going outdoors, while others disagree and quote statistics about the tragedy of outdoor cats killed by motor vehicles and coyotes, those suffering (and dying) from infectious diseases, and the short life of most outdoor cats. I once had a man in Sisters say to me, "I love my cats too much to let them go outside alone."
One cat-owner, considering the dilemma of whether to allow her cat to roam outside, said, "One must consider that the average life-span of a totally outdoor cat is about a year and a half, while the totally indoor cat is expected to live upwards to 15 years."
There are the obvious dangers facing outdoor cats. One threat is the cat that sits on its owner's warm car engine in winter for warmth, and is then torn to pieces by the fan belt when the engine is started. Add to that accidental and planned poisonings, cruel people, coyotes, tougher cats and diseases, and dangers to outdoor cats begin to grow alarmingly.
A type of Feline AIDS has popped up, along with heartworms (transmitted by mosquitoes) and the insatiable appetite cats have for antifreeze. Its sweet taste is irresistible to most cats and just walking through spilled antifreeze and licking its paws will often be enough to kill a cat. Skin cancer is another killer that attacks cat's ears, which also freeze in winter.
Unaltered tomcats fighting other toms spread disease and untreated abscesses can kill a cat and spread the infection. Toxoplasmosis - a parasite cats ingest from eating prey - can kill cats. It is also contagious to humans and can result in tragic birth defects. Not too many years back, there was a report of a child infected with the Black Death when her cat dragged in a ground squirrel it had caught and the infected fleas jumped from the dead squirrel to the cat's owner.
Then there's the business of your outdoor cat burying its feces in the neighbor's garden. Just imagine what will happen when the gardener next door digs that stuff up!
The Humane Society of Redmond neuters and spays all the feral cats it gets then fosters them out, all on donated dollars. Years back, the manager of the Humane Society of Central Oregon told me: "I do not allow my house cat to do anything I do not approve of." That means it is possible to "train" a kitty without destroying its "quality of life." With the myriad of furniture and toys available to cat owners, it is possible for Tabby-the-Cat to live a long and wonderful life indoors, but if Tabby must go outdoors, it's probably a good idea to keep him on a leash.