For the Birds Radio Program: Cats

Original Air Date: Feb. 1, 2000 Rerun Dates: Jan. 6, 2003

Laura explains why cats should be kept indoors.

Duration: 4′49″


One of the most vexing problems facing birds today is house cats. A lot of people simply don’t believe that their sweet little kitty is contributing to the demise of whole populations of birds, but if a cat spends time outdoors, it is probably chasing little birds, and one by one these dead birds add up. Some people have told me that their cat doesn’t hurt birds—it only plays with them. But cat claws and teeth are sharp and pointed. When a person rescues a bird from a cat, the bird’s adrenaline is flowing and it usually flies away, apparently as good as new, when in reality it often has puncture wounds under the feathers. Cat saliva is laden with bacteria, and within a few days virtually every bird bitten by a cat succumbs to infection.

In all my years as a rehabber, I only twice had birds that survived longer than a week following a cat attack. In both cases, the bird was treated with amoxycillin to prevent infection. In the case of a female Evening Grosbeak with a broken wing, I wrapped the bird’s body snugly with a bandage to brace the set wing against that anchor. The bird did wonderfully for about ten days. But when I removed the body bandage and she joyfully spread her wings, she suddenly toppled over and died instantly. A necropsy showed several crushed ribs. While her whole body was bound, everything was fine, but as soon as she opened her wings, a couple of the splintered ribs shifted and pierced her lungs.

The other bird I cared for that survived a cat bite for more than a week, a baby Pine Siskin, actually recovered completely. But the vast majority of birds brought to me with cat bites died. The ones with no broken bones usually were bright and spunky for the first day or two but then quickly declined—their eyes became dull, they grew listless and cool to the touch, and died in their sleep. The most heartbreaking was a little chickadee who seemed so sparkly and cheerful when he arrived. The woman who brought him felt just awful that her cat had grabbed him from her feeder, and seemed so sad and concerned that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the chickadee would probably die. She seemed relieved to hand him over to someone who knew what she was doing, and left confident that he would quickly be flying with his flock again. Despite antibiotics to treat the nasty puncture wounds on its sides, and although it was comfortable and curious about my office and seemed happy for the first two days, on the third day it suddenly grew listless and died that night. A couple of months later that same woman came back with yet another bird her cat had toyed with, and a few weeks after that, she came by with yet another. When I told her that the previous two had both died and asked if she would please keep her cat indoors, she got a sad, tearful look and said that the kitty really loved being outside and that cats need and deserve freedom. If only she could have watched the sparkle ebb from that chickadee, if only she had been the one sitting up nights giving him medication and growing attached to him, perhaps she could have put her kitty’s inconvenience in perspective, and found ways to give it a stimulating environment indoors so both the cat and the birds could thrive.

I have a cat. She was a stray that I took in last spring, one accustomed to freedom and hunting and all the things that we romanticize about. And there were days last summer when she yearned to go outside. But she’s made the transformation into an indoor cat wonderfully well. The squirrels at our window feeder tease her by feeding tantalizingly close to the glass—so near and yet so far. And she literally salivates over every chickadee that flutters in. But when we open the door to let the dogs out, she never bolts. She’s resigned to staying inside, and happy and even grateful that she has a warm, comfortable home, even at the price of her freedom. Isn’t that what being a pet is all about?