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An Outdoor Cat Controversy Heats Up in 'The Miami Herald'

Posted Jul 15 2010 10:31am
It’s not as if we’ve been suffering a dearth of controversy here on FullyVetted over the past week. Snippy comments, rip-my-head-off e-mails and other discomfiting stressors abounded.

So I figured, why stop there? Here’s one on cats and the environment for you all to tussle over too.

These are two recent Miami Herald columns — one right after the other, seeing as I like to stoke the fires of controversy. Now, before you excoriate me over this, rest assured, my POV is much more nuanced than I can possibly express in these two superficial Q&A columns.


Q: I’ve just moved to a new place with my two cats, "Mince" and "Meat," and I’m trying to decide how long to wait before letting them outside again. Is there any rule of thumb to know when it’s safe? 

A: Safe? If safety is a big issue why would you want to expose them to the outdoors?

I inevitably find myself arguing this point over and over. Cats in modern society belong indoors every bit as much as our dogs do.

Consider that as recently as thirty years ago it was commonplace to allow our dogs to roam. Laws and common sense, however, stepped in to protect our citizenry and our dogs alike. Today we regard those who don’t contain their dogs as irresponsible. So, too, do I expect our society to alter its perception of our domestic house-cats as an outdoors species.

While it’s true that all animals are "naturally" suited for out-of-doors living, there’s nothing magical about our felines that should change our point of view on the indoor habitat as the modern ideal. After all, while cats inarguably adore the outdoors, it’s equally obvious that they’ve got bigger troubles outdoors.

For starters, everyone knows that cats are no match for larger "predators." Dogs and vehicles are among the risks no adored cat need be subjected to. (How many violently rended cats do you observe on your daily commute?)

And for those of you who believe your cats are too smart for common predation, what say you to all those stressful, same-species interactions?

Other cats, while rarely offering immediately life-threatening injuries, can nonetheless occasion some serious veterinary bills. Indeed, cat bite wounds are the most common cause of non-routine veterinary visits for outdoor-roaming cats.

Moreover, bites are the easiest way for cats to catch the kind of life-span truncating viruses veterinarians always fear on your pets’ behalf. Feline leukemia and feline AIDS are too common to ignore as an effective argument for indoor living.

Sure, it’s tough to switch to a litter box household with an indoor-only clan [that had been previously outdoors]. Still, it’s crucial for all cat owners to understand that this approach is not only what’s best for their individual cats, it’s also what’s best for the environment. After all, cats are impressively effective predators in their own right. Small prey deserve some safety too, right? I say keep everyone safe — by keeping them separate.


Next up, an angry reader's riposte

Q: I was disappointed to read your opinion in last week’s column on keeping cats indoors. Cats are natural predators who require outdoor stimulation for their physical and mental health. Indoor cats are almost always overweight or obese. And outdoor cats do not damage the environment — people do. Pinning environmental damage on our cats is the height of human hubris.

A: While I would never quibble with your last point, and acknowledge that some studies refute the evidence that cats might be responsible for a severe reduction in songbird populations, it’s undeniable that cats are highly effective predators who have been shown to affect sensitive ecosystems adversely. That’s why both Audubon and the National Bird Conservancy, among other major environmental organizations, have been big supporters of indoor cat lifestyles for many years now.

South Florida, given its year-round balminess, avian migratory path status, and sensitive-species residency, is the perfect place for outdoor cats not to be. Trouble is, what’s comfortable for our native species is also what’s comfortable for cats. Hence, the large populations of feral cats in most any Miami-Dade or Broward County neighborhood.

As to cats being natural predators who require more stimulation than the average household provides, I wholeheartedly agree. While obesity among indoor cats probably has more to do with how we feed our cats than any other factor, it’s true that outdoor living and the activity it provides keeps them leaner.

Problem is, outdoor living also exposes them to a variety of risks I’d argue are far more pressing than the nutritionally mitigatable health risks posed by excess poundage. Consider cars, other cats, larger predators (i.e., dogs) and the risk of communicable diseases.

There should be a middle ground. Luckily, there is. Because in an ideal world cats would have controlled access to the out-doors (in a location where they cannot predate upon wildlife or risk exposure to common outdoor dangers). Outdoor cat enclosures are an excellent solution.

In case you’ve never considered the possibility of an outdoor enclave for your cats, I recommend you head over to 'Dr. Google,' where a simple search for 'catios' (as they’ve come to be called, reference ModernCat for ideas) will reveal why this trend has finally caught on. Not only is this a perfect project for the chronically DIY-inclined, it’s relatively inexpensive, immensely enjoyable and — best of all — best for your cats.


OK, so before you kill the messenger, consider that what I write for The Herald is glorified fluff aimed at the lowest common denominator. I'm looking to inform the average cat owner, not to address the serious issue of cat overpopulation in a detailed, political way. As I said, my position is far more nuanced, informed by a recognition of the propaganda wars that occur on both sides of the controversy and the cats that get caught in the crossfire.

For my part, I do believe cats should ideally stay indoors. I'm a veterinarian so I will always advocate for what's best for my individual patients. But I will also say this: There's no one size fits all. Every community is different. Every cat is different. And every home is another opportunity for individual decision making.

Now finally, it’s your turn to opine …

 
Dr. Patty Khuly
 
 
Pic of the day: "Outdoor Dreaming!" by shesnuckingfuts

(Is that a big squirrel or WHAT?)
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