For much of my adult life, cats have been part of my life. I love their company and their independence. Before I moved to North Carolina, I had a cat that spent time outdoors and indoors, though she always seemed to prefer to be outdoors. Smart cat. Who wouldn’t rather be outside?
But in recent years I have become aware of the havoc outdoor cats wreak on wild animals, including birds. The numbers are staggering! It is estimated that cats kill more than 4 BILLION animals annually, with over 1.4 billion of those being birds. I wrote a post about this recently– CLICK HERE . According to Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.”Cat predation is one of the reasons why one in three American bird species are in decline.” A University of Nebraska study from 2010 showed that “cats have been responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species worldwide.”
I fully understand that this is heated topic with very strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Pet owners think it is their right to allow their cats to roam freely. But what about when their cats wander into other people’s yards, preying on birds at their feeders or killing baby birds just fledged from the nest? How can I prevent my neighbor’s cats from killing my birds?
For myself and my husband–who is an avid birder–we cannot with a clear conscience allow our two young cats to roam our yard–even if we do live on 5 acres in the middle of the forest where the cats would be relatively safe from speeding cars. You know why? Because we love watching our birds–we love having feeders out to attract them, putting out nesting boxes and a bird bath. We love their singing, love watching them as they make their nests and raise their babies. We even have cameras in two of our nesting boxes so we can see firsthand what they are up to. Right now we have a tufted titmouse nesting in one –4 of her 5 eggs hatched yesterday and now she is busily feeding the hungry babies– and a pair of squirrels using the other.
Allowing our cats to go outside would mean some of our birds and other animals–like voles, chipmunks, salamanders, ringneck snakes, frogs and toads would have to die.
Because whether we would witness it or not, the truth is that cats are predators. THEY KILL BECAUSE THEY CAN, not because they need to for food.
Studies with cameras on house cats that roam outside have shown that they can be the most well-fed cats on the planet but that won’t stop them from killing a bird or other animal that they can catch. Less than 25% of the time do they bring back what they’ve killed–thus keeping pet owners in the dark about their impact.
Recently we decided our cats lack stimulation. We tried some new toys but that only held their attention for so long. We did some research and concluded we should try training them to wear a leash so we can take them outside. I admit I was a complete skeptic, thinking it would be impossible, that a cat can’t really be trained! What a ridiculous idea, I thought!
But we read up on it and decided to give it a try. We bought two special cat leashes–these are different from a dog leash in that there is a harness and the leash is made of stretchy material. The first step was putting the two leashes in places that the cats associated with love and care–their favorite sunny window seat, their cushioned bed, the afghan on the couch. After a few days we moved on to putting the leash on–at the same time that treats are given generously- but not actually going anywhere.
After practice indoors, we eventually progressed to putting the leash on and carrying the cats outside.
Since then it has been several weeks and now we regularly take both cats outside. Hobbes LOVES the chance to explore outside! He and I follow the stream up the mountain and walk down to the pond or along the long driveway. For the most part I allow him to lead the way, going where he feels inclined to go. Indie is more skeptical, but is coming along. She stays closer to the house and sometimes seems content to just lay in the sun.
I have learned that with a lot of patience it IS POSSIBLE to train cats to go outside!
Is it as convenient as opening the door and letting the cats out? Absolutely not, but I am okay with that, knowing with some effort we CAN have the best of both worlds.
We can enjoy providing a safe haven for our birds and other outdoor animals AND enjoy having cats too– while letting them enjoy the chance to feel the sunshine, explore, and get out of the house into the great outdoors.
If you have a cat and want to try training him/her to use a leash, here are some sites with good directions:
Good luck and please drop me a note to let me know how it’s going, or your thoughts on this topic.