There is a debate among cat lovers. Some say that their instinct as hunters should be respected and they should be allowed to explore the outside world, while others, to ensure their safety, do everything to keep them indoors. What should we do?
Here is an answer given by scientists who conducted a study on this question. This research was conducted for cats in the state of Washington, but it is presumed to apply to many other places on our continent.
"We found that the average domestic cat in Washington DC has a 61% probability of being found in the same space as raccoons," explained Daniel Herrera, the lead author of the study and holder of a PhD in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology (ENST) at the University of Maryland.
Cats also have a "61% spatial overlap with red foxes and 56% with Virginia opossums," he added.
Raccoons are "the most prolific vector of rabies in America," Herrera explained. Red foxes and opossums can also spread rabies. Herrera therefore asserts that "by letting our cats outside, we significantly endanger their health."
There are other, more well-known reasons not to let our cats roam outside. We know that these small felines are great hunters and can decimate local animal populations. And, it should not be believed that cats do us a service by keeping vermin away.
"Many people mistakenly believe that cats prey on non-native populations like rats, when in reality they prefer to hunt small native species," explained the scientist. "Cats keep rats out of sight out of fear, but there is really no evidence that they control the population of non-native rodents. The real concern is that they decimate native populations that bring benefits to the Washington ecosystem."
It should also be known that cats are not just another predator playing a necessary role in the ecosystem. The probability of finding a cat in a habitat was positively linked to the density of the human population, rather than to any indicators of native wildlife. In other words, we are the ones displacing the small hunters, rather than their natural niche.
"These habitat relationships suggest that the distribution of cats is largely determined by humans rather than natural factors," explained Travis Gallo, associate professor at ENST and advisor to Herrera. "Since humans largely influence where cats are located in the landscape, they also dictate the degree of risk these cats face and the extent of damage they cause to local wildlife."
The solution, according to Herrera, is simple: let's keep our cats indoors, especially in situations where they are likely to interact with native wildlife.
This study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.