Paws for Thought

When pets and nature collide: The untold story of Sylvester and Tweety

by Dr. Janice Mitchell

With the beautiful weather we are having, and with more folks and their animal companions coming and enjoying our Island, we have noticed at the veterinary clinic more animal-animal encounters. In particular, there has been a rash of dogs meeting up with porcupines. And, of course, the dog generally ends up losing and his/her owner ends up with a veterinary bill. I have written about porcupine, skunk and raccoon risks in the past, however this time I thought I would focus on our feline, in particular with regards to “Close Encounters of the Avian Kind.” 

There are always mixed opinions about whether  or not cats should be let outside. This is not an article to advocate either way. However, this is meant to enlighten cat owners with those cats that are of the hunting kind. 

Their little bird victims are not always innocent and sometimes come laced with a bad bacteria. Some cats get very ill after eating these birds and are diagnosed with “songbird fever.” Songbird fever is associated with infection with Salmonella typhimurium. It causes an acute febrile illness in cats that lasts for two to seven days. It has been reported in conjunction with seasonal bird migration. 

Affected cats may have hunted birds or been in contact with bird feeders, and they present to the veterinary clinic with acute anorexia, marked fever, hemorrhagic diarrhea and/or vomiting. 

That’s a pretty good reason to not let your cat hunt and eat birds. However, there’s another good reason to stop the feline hunter and this reason is quite profound. I am talking about the damage that the domestic and feral cat population can do on the wild bird population. 

If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the US and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime. According to research published online in September 2019 by the journal Science, wild bird populations in the continental US and Canada have declined by almost 30 percent since 1970. This study has demonstrated that in 50 years, there has been a loss of 2.9 billion breeding birds with devastating losses among birds in every biome. 

The reasons are numerous and, as usual, human induced. Between habitat loss, collisions with airplanes, turbines and windows of homes and high rise buildings, pesticides, fisheries, climate change, and finally our domestic cat, birds are having a tough struggle. But can one cat really do much damage? 

There is the story of Tibbles the cat, who travelled with her owner to an untouched island south of New Zealand in 1894. There, she alone caused the extinction of the Stephens Island wren, a small, flightless bird found only in that part of the world. 

Most cats aren’t as deadly as Tibbles, but your average outdoor pet cat still kills around two animals per week, according to the Wildlife Society and the American Bird Conservancy. 

The solution for these cats is simple: bring them indoors. Or at least don’t have bird feeders around these elite killers. 

So far, so good. Now comes the real problem: unowned cats, which include strays and ferals. Born in the wild or abandoned, feral cats spend almost no time with humans; they’re basically wild animals. 

Stray cats, by contrast, often have a working relationship with humans. They might live in managed communities, where a human caretaker regularly feeds and watches over them—“subsidizing” them, meaning their numbers can soar to rates they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. 

Whether stray or feral, these cats kill on average three times as many animals as owned cats. Feral cat advocates and ecologists agree on very little. But one thing they both will say is this: There are too many cats outside. 

Feral cat advocates say these dense numbers threaten the welfare of cats themselves, which lead miserable lives coloured by fights and starvation. Ecologists, meanwhile, worry about those cats’ victims—as well whether the cats might be spreading disease to humans and other animals. 

At this point, I would like to extend kudos to the many rescue groups that we have here on the Island. The spaying and neutering of the many stray and abandoned cats should directly be helping the wild bird populations. 

I would also like to send out a “tweet” (aka thank you) to all the birders of the Manitoulin Nature Club, in particular to Chris Bell who monitors and reports the bird watch/count on our Island. Until then, please respect the wildlife we have here on the Island by controlling your pet’s interactions with them. Perhaps Mother Nature would appreciate some social distancing as well.

Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian at Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Services.