It is no secret to birders that cats killing birds is one of the greatest bird conservation threats, and feral cats, cat colonies, neighborhood cats, outdoor pets, and strays kill thousands of birds every year. Fortunately, birders have many easy, effective techniques to discourage feral, stray, and lost cats from invading the property they've made friendly for birds. With care and thoughtfulness, it is possible to protect birds without being cruel to cats.
Feral cats not only kill birds and other wildlife, but they also cause other problems when they become accustomed to visiting the same yards. Carefully cultivated flower beds can become open litter boxes. Garden sheds can become breeding grounds for litters of unwanted kittens. Trees, fences, or other structures can be territorial markers for spraying males. Aggressive cats can attack pets or fight for territory, causing neighborhood disturbances. Wandering cats may even transmit diseases, fleas, or other pests to your pets. Small children have even been bitten or scratched by aggressive wandering house cats.
For many birders, however, it is the threat of feral cats killing birds and scaring birds away from feeders and birdhouses that is the biggest problem. When cats are part of the neighborhood, it is essential for birders to take steps to discourage unwanted felines from visiting the yard.
Stray Cats vs. Feral Cats
It's worth making a distinction between a tame house cat belonging to a nearby neighbor who occasionally wanders into your yard, and a truly feral cat, which is typically a creature that has never known domestication and which is quite wild. Both animals can kill birds and create other mayhem, but with a wandering domestic cat, you usually have recourse by locating the owner and asking that they control their pet. A wandering domestic pet may wear a collar, and sometimes will be notably sociable with people. If an animal control agency picks up this type of cat, there's a good chance its owner will be contacted, or that the animal will be adopted.
A true feral cat, on the other hand, is usually quite skittish around people, and it will be noticeably wild in its behavior. Such cats are often beyond domestication, and unfortunately, some will wind up euthanized by animal control agencies. An ongoing community practice of neutering and spaying domestic animals is ultimately the most humane approach to the feral cat problem.
The methods used to get rid of stray cats may differ, depending on if you're dealing with a true feral cat or just a wandering pet.
10 Ways to Get Rid of Stray Cats
Remove Food Sources
Feral cats will stay in any area where food is plentiful. Avoid feeding your own pets outdoors and cover trash scraps securely to deny unwelcome cats an easy meal. Do not add any meat scraps to a compost pile. Keep grills and barbecue pits clean to avoid enticing smells.
All wild animals need a secure place to sleep and to raise their young. Board up holes in old sheds or garages, under decks or porches, or in simple shelters such as woodpiles or window wells to avoid providing this shelter to feral cats.
Cats, especially well-cared-for pets, are well known for their love of relaxation, and making a yard uncomfortable can discourage visitors. Fill flower beds and areas where cats lounge with sharp pebbles, eggshell shards, or a layer of chicken wire so the ground will be uncomfortable.
Unaltered males will be attracted to any female cats in heat. Pet owners who spay their female cats are less likely to attract wandering males. Unaltered females should be kept indoors during their heat cycles.
Use Commercial Repellant
Cats have very keen senses of smell and taste, and commercial repellents are available to discourage unwanted cats. Natural repellents to sprinkle on flowerbeds or gardens include moth balls, ammonia-soaked rags, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, citrus peels, coffee grounds, and citrus-based sprays. Reapply repellents after heavy rains or long periods for the best effectiveness.
Use Scare Tactics
Old-fashioned scare tactics can discourage cats from visiting a yard regularly. Ultrasonic sirens, motion-activated sprinklers, and motion-activated lights can all be useful. If cats are jumping on a fence in one area, a sensitive bell or can of beans or marbles that will fall when the cats jump can be effective to scare them away.
Homes where dogs are allowed to roam in fenced-in yards are less likely to be visited by feral cats, especially if the breed is one renowned for chasing, such as a terrier or herding dog. If your dog has a history of actually catching small animals, though, it should not be allowed to chase cats, as it is illegal to deliberately wound a domestic cat.
Contact the Owner
If it seems likely the stray cat is a domestic pet that just happens to be wandering, you may already recognize the pet, or it may have a collar and identification tags that allow you to contact its owner. Be reasonable but firm about the problems this pet causes in your yard. Pet owners have a responsibility to control their animals, and most owners will respect this. You may, however, need to firmly indicate that calling animal control is an option if the problem continues.
Call Animal Control
Most communities staff animal control specialists who will address wild animals or loose domestic animals that are causing danger or nuisance. The degree of involvement varies depending on your community. Some agencies will actually take measures to trap and remove a true feral cat; others will come pick one up if you have trapped it yourself.
Use Humane Traps
Spring-loaded humane traps can be effective for catching feral cats that can then be turned over to wildlife control officials or local shelters and rescues. Place traps in areas where the cats frequent and bait them with appropriate food or appetizing scents. Be aware, though, that you may trap a different creature, such as a raccoon or opossum.
Work With Neighbors
A feral cat's territory usually extends well beyond a single yard. Talk to neighbors about the problems with feral cats and encourage them to take similar steps to discourage unwelcome visitors. Neighborhoods that work together generally have fewer problems with feral cats.
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What Causes Stray Cats?
A stray cat—whether is is simply a wandering local domestic house cat or a true feral that has bred in the wild—will be drawn to your yard because it has features the cat finds attractive. In the case of the typical house cat, this means the creature is able to find food, water, and shelter. Bird-lovers who have positioned birdhouses, bird feeders, and watering stations may find that neighborhood cats come in droves to hunt birds.
How to Prevent Stray Cats
Preventing stray cats from spending time in your yard is largely a matter of denying them the habitat they prefer, and creating an environment that is actively hostile to them. It is important to use several techniques to keep feral and stray cats out of your yard. While one tactic may be effective against one cat, using several techniques can be more effective to keep other stray and feral cats from moving in when the first cat has moved out. Other options include:
- Designing landscaping specifically to discourage cats: Sharp foliage with strong odors, thorny bushes, stinging plants, and sharp-edged mulch can all be part of a bird-friendly landscape that discourages cats.
- Supporting trap-neuter-release programs, feral sanctuaries, or other community programs that care for feral cats in humane ways: These programs may help reduce the feral cat population over time.
- Supporting local adoption shelters and care facilities so they can provide cats a safe, healthy home rather than permitting strays to run loose: The more support these facilities have, financially or through material donations and volunteers, the more cats they can care for.
Can Cats Carry Rabies or Other Diseases?
Rabies is quite rare in cats, but there are a few cases in which the disease was transmitted to humans from cats. Keep this in mind if you live in an area where rabies is known to occur. Feral cats and others that spend a lot of time outdoors are more susceptible to a variety of other diseases, but they are most likely to be transmitted to your own domestic pets, not humans. If you have feral cats roaming, it's best to make sure your own cats stay indoors.
Can Feral Cats Be Hunted or Killed?
Although feral cats are sometimes regarded as vermin, especially in rural areas where they can become quite plentiful, it is a violation of animal cruelty laws in virtually every jurisdiction to wound or deliberately kill a domestic species such as Felis catus, the common house cat. Only animal control agencies are authorized to painlessly euthanize domestic species, even animals that roam as feral creatures.
Will a Stray Cat Go Away on Its Own?
Depending on the size of its available territory, a stray cat's visit to your yard may be very sporadic. Or, if it's a domestic cat that escapes occasionally, you may see it only rarely. But feral cats that find good shelter and food sources—or the hormone scent of a nearby potential mate— will very likely visit your yard on a nearly permanent basis, unless you take measures to discourage them.
Can I Simply Ignore a Stray Cat?
In many ways, a true feral cat can be seen as another form of wildlife, and some homeowners may regard its hunting of mice, chipmunks, rabbits, and other garden pests to be perfectly acceptable. Just as bird-lovers dislike stray cats, some gardeners may welcome them for the predatory benefits they offer, just as a fox or owl is welcomed. However, if you find that multiple cats are frequently prowling your yard, this is no longer a natural phenomenon, and it's probably time to take steps to control the population.
Techniques to Avoid
No matter how problematic feral cats may be in the yard, there are certain techniques that should never be used to keep these unwanted visitors away, including:
- Poisons or any toxic contamination
- Shooting, even with non-lethal ammunition or pellet guns
- Inhumane traps, including glue traps
- Aggressive dogs
These techniques are difficult to control, and using them against feral cats can violate local laws. Furthermore, because these methods are unpredictable, using them can have negative consequences against unintentional targets such as neighbors' outdoor pets, other wildlife, or the birds themselves.
It is always wise to take steps to protect backyard birds from cats by choosing safe birdhouses and feeders, avoiding ground feeding, and providing safe cover for birds to take shelter. By protecting the birds and using different tactics to discourage any feral or stray cats, it is possible to keep feral cats out of your yard and ensure birds are safe.