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Thursday, August 11, 2011
The Dangerous Outdoors
Have you ever watched a cat stalk its prey through the tall grass, looking so much like its wild, big cat cousins? Seeing this image, it's easy to believe that being outside is the best life for a cat. However, an outdoor cat lives a more stressful life than an indoor cat, and stress leads to a myriad of physical and psychological disorders. Outdoor cats on the street, or even in the country, are faced every day with territorial disputes, threats from other animals, people or cars, and environmental noises that can cause panic. In addition, the physical threats, illnesses and parasites outside can put free-roaming cats in immediate jeopardy. As a result, indoor cats generally live longer and healthier lives than outdoor cats.
It is a myth that cats easily return to a wild existence and are able to care for themselves after having been pets. Although all cats retain the instinct to hunt, they are no longer adapted to life in the wild. Domestication has suppressed or even silenced many of the wild skills necessary for survival. As such, feral cat populations are most commonly found in and around well-populated human areas because even feral cats require human intervention to survive.
There are many threats to an outdoor cat, including other cats, dogs, and even predators such as birds of prey and coyotes. The latter become especially hazardous if the outdoor cat is hunting the predator's natural prey such as rabbits. Fights with other cats over territory and food can lead to scratches and bites that can easily become infected, to say nothing of passing infectious diseases. Many dog breeds kept as pets have a high "prey drive", meaning they will see your free-roaming cat as something to attack. Not every cat will be able to get out of the way quickly enough, especially if there is more than one dog.
Sadly, another very real threat to your cat is intolerant neighbors. Not everyone is fond of cats. Avid bird watchers may be angry that your cat is stalking the birds at their feeders. Others may not appreciate muddy paw prints on their cars. Animal care and control agencies have numerous cases of cats that have been deliberately burned, stabbed, kicked and even poisoned by humans (see this recent blog posting from The Phoenix New Times).
Even if your neighbor doesn't have it out for Fluffy, normal parts of human lifestyles can pose tremendous hazards to your cat. Grooming after walking across treated landscaping can lead to poisoning. Another possible danger is fluid spilled from a car, such as oil or antifreeze. These every-day car essentials are poisonous to animals and can cause them to become incredibly ill. Outdoor cats are especially drawn to this hazard as they are naturally curious and tend to explore unfamiliar fluids tongue first. Cats may also scavenge in garbage when something smells too enticing to pass up. Small bones, plastic wrappers or even some medications can be found in neighborhood trash, all of which could threaten a cat's health.
The number one killer and crippler of outdoor cats is cars. Even a quiet residential street has enough traffic to pose the danger. It only takes a moment for even a street-wise cat to lose concentration and dash into oncoming traffic when being chased by a dog, pursuing prey, or distracted by other kitty delights. Even parked cars can pose a risk if it's a cold day and the cat goes inside a warm engine block for shelter. The cat can be injured, if not killed, the next time the engine is started.
DISEASE AND PARASITES
Cats who roam in the great outdoors are at much greater risk of exposure to diseases and parasites, some of which they can pass on to their human owners.
The Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) compromises a cat's immune system. While there is an effective vaccine against FeLV, no vaccine can be 100% effective. Once a cat is infected with FeLV, his or her immune system is compromised, and the cat will have difficulty fighting off any other type of infection and can even develop cancer. The virus is shed in bodily fluids and is primarily spread through biting, although there is a small risk from grooming and sharing dishes. Kittens can be infected by their mother while in the womb or during nursing after birth.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) also affects a cat's immune system and is ultimately fatal. There is no cure for this virus or for FeLV. There is a vaccine for FIV but it is not proven effective and will always cause any tests for the virus to come up as "positive" making it impossible to know if the cat is really infected. FIV leads to chronic infections and can affect organs and bone marrow. The most common transmission of the virus is through bite wounds and the carriers are most commonly un-neutered, free-roaming males.
Rabies is a caused by virus, which can infect warm-blooded mammals, including cats, people, wildlife, and farm animals, and is always fatal. Outdoor cats are at risk of contact with rabid wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. As noted in a previous blog, in Maricopa County one of the most common carriers of rabies is bats. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cats are the domestic animal most commonly found to be rabid. Cats are closely associated with people and rabid cats often become aggressive. These two factors increase the risk of human exposure. Bites are the most common means of transmission. Rabies is lethal if not detected and treated immediately. Rabies attacks the central nervous system, resulting in paralysis and death.
Plague is cause by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, and is transmitted primarily by wild rodent fleas mainly in the states of NM, AZ, CO and CA. Cats can become infected from flea bites or from eating infected small mammals. In 2011, a barn cat in Oregon tested positive for plague. The most frequent route of transmission to humans is via the bite of an infected flea. People can also contract the illness by direct contact with the secretions of an infected animal or person through scratches or bites, or from inhalation of infective droplets released by coughing or sneezing. In recent years, almost all human cases of the most lethal form of the disease, pneumonic plague, have been linked to domestic cats.
There are additional parasites, including roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, Giardia, toxoplasmosis and bacteria that cats can become exposed to while roaming outside. Most of these are zoonotic, which means they can be transmitted to humans. For more information about zoonotic parasites, visit the Companion Animal Parasite Council website.
So while it may seem that allowing your cat to indulge his or her "wild side" by roaming free outside is the natural thing to do, the reality is that it can be dangerous and stressful for both your cat and your family.
Coming up in future blogs: how to transition an outdoor cat to an indoor cat; how to enrich an indoor cat's life