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When Cats Attack

A new study from the Wildlife Center of Virginia could change the way some people care for their pets.  The center’s director is now urging people to keep outdoor cats inside.

Each year, animal lovers transport hundreds of injured critters to the wildlife center in Waynesboro, where a team of veterinarians try to save their lives.  Often injured rabbits and birds, squirrels and chipmunks were attacked by cats.

“The truth is that an outdoor cat is a killing machine.”

That’s Ed Clark, executive director of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, where staffers studied medical records dating back 11 years.  Of 21,000 small mammals, birds and reptiles admitted during that time, 3,000 had been attacked by cats, and Clark says their odds of survival were slim.

“The cat bite and cat scratch are just laden with very toxic bacteria, and even in humans if you’re bitten by a cat it is a very serious injury and you should go to the emergency room.  There are a lot of people who have had truly life-threatening blood poisoning from a cat bite.”

Ironically, these attacks are rarely sparked by hunger.  The center’s chief veterinarian David McRuer says scientists have studied what happens after a cat kills.

“They actually had little National Geographic cameras, and they put them on the collars of indoor/outdoor cats, and then they looked to see what the animals were feeding on when they were outside.”

And it turned out the animals ate less than 20% of what they killed.  Again, Ed Clark:

“Only a small percentage of what they actually kill is eaten.  The rest of it’s just killed, game over, go find something else to play with.” 

But Clark doesn’t blame the cats. It’s their owners who do things without realizing the deadly impact a cat can have.

“People feed birds in their backyard and then let the cat outdoors, which is luring these birds to their deaths.  We certainly hear that , ‘My cat never kills anything,’ and then you press them, and ask if their cat has ever brought them a present – the entrails of an animal they’ve killed, and reluctantly almost all of them will concede that it’s so.”

Some owners try to prevent problems by putting a bell on their cat, but Clark says that doesn’t help.

“Because one of the things that a cat is able to do is move its legs without moving its body, and it’s very cat-like behavior – cat-live move where their body remains essentially horizontal.  Their head remains motionless.  Their eyes remain fixed on a target, and from a crouched position they can move quite rapidly without ringing the bell, and by the time the prey hears the bell it’s too late.”

When he realized the damage domestic felines were doing to a total of 84 different species, Clark went home and put his three cats in the house.  When they tried to escape, he would spray them with a squirt gun.  The training, he says, was quick, painless and effective.

“It teaches them very quickly that that’s not what they want to do, so I really can leave the doors of my house wide open, and they may peek out, but they’re not coming out, because the water monster lives out there.” 

Some might consider it cruel to keep cats inside, but experts note the average life expectancy for an indoor cat is 15-18 years.  Center veterinarian Dave McRuer says outdoor cats live just 3-5 years on average.

“A lot of cats are hit by cars when they’re free roaming.  There’s also attacks by larger wildlife – coyotes for example, and then also just getting into fights and interacting with other cats in the wild, so they frequently will develop abscesses and infectious diseases if they’re not controlled.”

He says the problem for prey is especially bad when small animals are giving birth and raising babies.

“We can decrease the prevalence of cat attacks on wildlife by keeping cats inside from April to September.  That represents 80% of the data.”

And, he adds, it’s easy enough to give cats access to the outdoors by constructing an enclosure outside – a play area for felines known as a catio.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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