Cats: Pets, Pest Controllers or Pests? How Science Can Inform Management

Cats are amongst the most popular pet animals in the world, but they can also represent a serious threat to biodiversity, especially because there are often many of them in the same place. An opinion paper, currently in press, in Trends in Ecology & Evolution explores how achieving an effective management of free-ranging cats, and thus mitigating their impact on wildlife, requires gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of these animals as pets, pest controllers, and pests. The paper introduces the idea of “Companion Animal Ecology”.

Common Classifications for Domestic Cats, Organised in Relation to Degree of Human Control over their Provisioning, Reproduction, and Movement. Table credits: Crowley et al.

The authors Dr Sarah Crowley, Miss Martina Cecchetti and Prof Robbie A. McDonald, based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute of the University of Exeter, begin their paper by illustrating how cats are an unusual domestic species as they have changed very little throughout domestication, compared to other animals.

For instance, cats have retained their hunting skills and are able to look after themselves and survive just fine without human assistance. Furthermore, they have never been purposefully bred to fulfil any particular role in human societies, while for example dogs have.

At the same time, however, domestic cats are also predisposed to form emotional bonds with people during early developmental stages, can better tolerate human presence, and have distinctive vocalisations and body language compared to their wild counterparts (i.e., wildcats).

Cats thus have a double identity: they are fully autonomous, and have close associations with and dependencies on people. “Recognising this duality is key to understanding the social tensions to which cats are central” the authors write.

A growing body of ecological research on cats’ impact on biodiversity (e.g., through predation on wildlife, disease transmission, hybridisation with wildcats) is causing increasing clashes between conservation advocates and “cat enthusiasts” on how we should manage these domestic animals.

Conservationists tend to suggest the control of unowned free-ranging cats (i.e., stray and feral individuals), through management measures such as sterilisation and release or lethal removal. They also promote a stricter management of owned cats, including through limiting their time outdoors.

Cat enthusiasts are often proponents of “free-ranging cat colonies”, and argue against the indoor confinement of cats, especially because it can lead to boredom, obesity and stress. Moreover, they also see domestic cats as scapegoats, taking the blame for environmental changes attributable to other anthropogenic factors.

The authors encourage the formulation of an interdisciplinary research area: Companion Animal Ecology, where “anthropogenic factors are acknowledged as integral to ecological processes”. For example, studies in this research area would investigate how free-ranging cats use agricultural landscapes, the extent to which they carry and spread diseases, their interactions with people, and also the drivers of cat owners’ behaviour and attitudes (e.g., towards free-ranging vs. indoor cats).

Understanding such human-cat-environment relationships will be central to uncover unsustainable aspects relating to free-ranging cat presence and develop effective strategies to address them, the scientists conclude.

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References

Crowley, S., Cecchetti, M., McDonald, R. A., Our Wild Companions: Domestic cats in the Anthropocene. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Article in Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2020.01.008

Cover image credits: Crowley et al.

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