Cats: Predators or Prey?


The answer is both.

Domestic house cats are highly skilled predators and outdoor cats living near or adjacent to natural areas are likely to prey on many of our nature neighbors. A domestic cat’s motivation to hunt is strong and even your well-fed cat will prey on local birds, small mammals, and reptiles if given the opportunity. Unsuspecting birds that benefit our gardens and natural areas by pollinating plants, spreading seeds, and controlling insects are often at risk of becoming prey of the predator driven instinct of our outdoor cats.

Cats that roam around outside are at risk of: becoming prey of wild predators, being attacked by domestic dogs, getting into fights with other cats, or getting hit by a car.

Domestic cats as predators

Although many of our cats are affectionate pets, they can hunt as effectively as wild predators. Free ranging cats that roam outdoors are a threat to our local wildlife. With more than 70 million pet cats and over 60 million stray cats in the United States, scientists estimate that cats are responsible for killing billions of wild animals, such as birds, reptiles, and small mammals (e.g. rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels) in just one year. Researchers studying the effects of cats in parks found that there were 50% less birds in a park with 25 cats compared to a park with no cats. They also found that two common types of ground-dwelling birds California Quail and California Thrasher could not be found in the park with cats.

Outside cats are not only predators but they are also competitors. Local wild predators such as foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, weasels, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and owls rely on the native populations of prey animals to survive. Our well-fed house cats do not need to kill native prey animals to survive, but they often kill them from an instinct to hunt that is independent of the urge to eat. Overall, cats can reduce the availability of prey available for our native wildlife.

Keep your cat safe.

It is a dangerous world outside for your beloved pet. If your cat is roaming around the neighborhood he is at risk of being injured or killed by wild predators, domestic dogs, hit by a car, fighting with other cats, ingesting poisoning (from eating poisoned rodents), or contracting diseases. Keeping your cat indoors is the best way to keep them safe.

Myth busters

  • My cat is well fed and doesn’t hunt wildlife. The instinct to hunt takes over when cats see prey animals and even well-fed cats have been observed killing wildlife.
  • My cat doesn’t hunt, he never brings anything home. Research conducted out of the University of Georgia found that only 23% of cat prey items were returned home, 49% of items were left at the capture site and 28% were consumed.
  • My cat wears a bell that alerts prey. Cats are sly and learn how to stalk without ringing the bell. Once they are ready to pounce, it’s too late for the prey animal.
  • My cat is happier and healthier when it goes outside. Cats that go outside face a lot of dangers. They can catch diseases from other cats, such as feline leukemia or feline AIDS, and they can be infected with fleas, ticks, and other parasites. They are at risk of being hit by vehicles and attacked by cats, dogs, or wildlife. They can also get poisoned from consuming leaking antifreeze or by eating rats and mice that are sick from rat poisons.
How you can help
American Humane Association
Further Reading
  • Flux, E. C. J. 2007. Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 34:4, 289-296.
  • Hawkins, C. C., W. E. Grant, and M. T. Longnecker. 1999. Effect of subsidized house cats on California birds and rodents. Transactions of the western section of the Wildlife Society 35:29-33.
  • Loss, S., T. Will, and P. P. Marra. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038.

Last updated: December 19, 2016

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