Nine lives more likely if cats inside

Kai Hagen

August 8, 2003

"Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats"

Perhaps you remember someone reading "Millions of Cats" to you as a child. Perhaps you've read it to your children or grandchildren. Originally published seventy-five years ago, Wanda Gag's first book was an instant classic that mesmerized young children.

No doubt, part of the reason is that we love cats.

Well...okay...we don't all love cats. It is said there are two kinds of people; Those who love cats, and those who have not lived with cats. Clearly, a lot of us have lived with cats...and love them.

People have been captivated by the beauty and nature of cats for around 4,000 years, since cats were first domesticated in Egypt. They've been in North America since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

And now, there really are millions and millions of cats.

In fact, according to U.S. Census data, the domesticated cat is the most numerous pet in the United States, having knocked dogs out of the number one spot not long ago. There are more than 60 million pet cats in the country, and, though estimates vary, there may be as many as 40 million more free-ranging or feral cats.

That's a lot of cats.

With so many cats, and so many cat lovers, it's no wonder there have been so many articles and editorials and letters to the editor of the Frederick News Post since young Joshua Jenkins and his parents shared their sad story about Luke, a beloved pet who was hit by a car.

The flood of letters is not surprising. But the anger from those on both sides of the debate is stunning and disappointing, nevertheless. The anger hasn't been limited to letters to the editor, either. Last week, someone even shot a Whittier cat, Sparky, who survived, but had her leg amputated.

People are going to disagree about free-roaming cats for a while, I'm sure. And I suppose there will continue to be some conflict between neighbors as long as there are pet owners who let their cats roam freely beyond their own property. But this isn't a just a conflict between people who own cats and people who don''t.

Rather, it is a clash between the past and the future.

Like most of you, I grew up in a world where most cats had free reign of the neighborhood, and beyond. We always had a few cats living with our family. I don't think we ever got one from a pet store or the pound, because there was often a litter of kittens that couldn't all find a home with neighbors, or a stray cat that needed a home.

All our cats were allowed to come and go as they pleased. They got into fights with other cats...and dogs. They caught and killed unknown numbers of small critters and birds, often bringing one back to the house, as if they were presenting us with a gift. That was normal. It seemed natural.

Two were killed by cars. One died from rat poisoning under a neighbors porch. I grew up thinking that cats only lived a few years, because few of ours lived longer than that, including the ones that seemed to die a natural death.

No neighbors ever complained. Nobody ever called the pound. None of our cats ever got shot at. As far as I know, nearly everyone's cats were out and about, too.

Times have changed.

There are a lot more people today. And there are a lot more cats, too. But, most of all, we know a lot we didn't know then.

We always knew that free-ranging domestic cats were hunters. Today we know it isn't just a matter of a bird here and a bird there. We know that our lovely little pets are unnatural and efficient predators, which exist in hugely unnatural densities everywhere people live, and they kill hundreds of millions of small mammals and songbirds, as well as small reptiles and large amphibians.

We know that bites, scratches, and fecal contamination from feral and free-ranging pet cats pose a risk to people by the spread of diseases such as toxoplasmosis, roundworm, and rabies.

We know that, even if free-roaming cats avoid cars, poison, disease, parasites and other predators, their indoor neighbors will, on average, live two or three times as long.

Everyone knows it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But, many misconceptions about cats, and much of the reluctance to keep them indoors, comes from the fact that it's hard to teach old cats new tricks. Too many people believe cats are unhappy or will go crazy indoors. But it just isn't so. A cat that has been raised indoors can get all the outdoors it wants just sitting next to a screened in window, and all the exercise it needs by playing with another cat.

We have two cats living with us now. Leo is twelve, and is as soft and healthy and frisky as he was ten years ago. Daisy is a little more than two, and still a kitten at heart. We got Daisy a while after Leo's long time companion, Aldo, died a couple of years ago. Aldo was seventeen. As anyone who lives with cats can imagine, losing Aldo was very sad, especially for our then nine year old son, who had never known an Aldo-less house. Cats are not interchangeable, and Daisy couldn't just replace Aldo, of course. She is a very different, but quirky and delightful cat who has captured our hearts and become a member of our family.

We love her. We'll take good care of her.

And we'll keep her indoors...for a long, long time.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at