Alley Cat Allies strongly condemns the sensationalized and distorted characterization in the media of the article, “A global synthesis and assessment of free-ranging domestic cat diet,” recently published in Nature Communications and its findings regarding cats. We also question the intention of the article’s authors in the distribution of the study based on irrelevant and overblown statements within the article related to cats and public health.
Despite its media portrayal, the article does not in any way prove that cats are a major threat to wildlife species, including endangered ones. It does not make any meaningful conclusions about the “diet” of domestic cats, nor does it prove that cats are “killing machines” or “stone cold killers” that “nothing is safe from” (words in quotes are included in real headlines about the article). However, it does provide a number that is easy to misconstrue into clickbait headlines.
Worse, the mischaracterization of these numbers can and likely will influence decisionmakers to enact cruel and ineffective lethal policies against cats. We’ve been down that road before—the debunked findings of an infamous and widely criticized 2013 study are being used to justify institutional harm to cats to this day.
The fact is scientific evidence consistently exonerates the domestic cat species of being a major threat to wildlife populations. With that in mind, we would like to clarify what IS in the content of the article and what is not. It may surprise you that even the article’s authors don’t always represent their “findings” accurately in their conclusions. Alley Cat Allies and Gregory J. Matthews, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Statistics at Loyola University Chicago, worked together on a thorough examination of the article and the media reacting to the publication.
What Does the Article Actually Say?
The article IS NOT an examination of the free-ranging domestic cat’s regular diet or what cats regularly consume.
The article IS a list of species cats have been documented as consuming at least once in some place at some time in at least one study based on a literature review of 533 previous studies that met the authors’ inclusion criteria. The data cannot be used to draw anything near the conclusion that cats are a major threat to those species or that those species are included in a cat’s usual diet.
The article’s concluded number IS NOT comprised of species that cats are known to have killed, though headlines would make you think otherwise.
The article’s concluded number IS claimed to be a list of species that were predated by cats OR scavenged. The authors do not distinguish between the two. “In the 533 studies, a variety of different measures were used to determine cats’ diets, including scat analysis, gut analysis, observed predation, and inferred predation, but the authors make no distinction between these methods when aggregating their data in the main text of their manuscript,” said Dr. Matthews.
To make the point, here are some of the species included in the list:
- Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae, approximately 34kg or 75 lbs)
Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas, approximately 133kg or 293 lbs)
Domestic Cow (Bos taurus, approximately 760kg or 1676 lbs)
The authors offered a weak caveat that “many of the largest species recorded were likely to have been predated as juveniles or scavenged as adults,” but we think all can agree that cats’ predation of these species is very unlikely.
As Dr. Matthews puts it: “Without making any distinction between cats’ scavenging and predation habits, it is also impossible based on this article to determine how many of the 346 species of ’conservation concern’ were killed by cats versus scavenged by cats.”
You wouldn’t know it reading the article. “Our study sheds light on the predatory habits of one of the world’s most successful and widely distributed invasive predators,” the authors claim, but a more accurate statement would be that the study “sheds light on the variety of species that cats have been documented to have ever eaten.” That number should have no meaningful impact on the way cats are treated in our communities or by policies created on their behalf.
The authors’ bias seems clear. Not only do they make no distinction between predation and scavenging (even though cats are opportunistic feeders and primarily scavenge for food), the authors also tend to focus on predation in their conclusions and mention scavenging as an afterthought. It appears they want the reader to get the idea that cats were documented as killing all the species discussed in the article. That, however, isn’t true.
Additionally, some language in the article’s discussion section stands out for being unrelated to the data collected, yet perhaps is quite related to the authors’ biases. “Aside from predation, these impacts include numerous cat-borne diseases that impact wildlife and human health and wellbeing, including toxoplasmosis, plague, and rabies…” the authors write. This statement does not follow from the study at hand and is incredibly misleading.
Community cats do not pose a public health risk. There has not been a confirmed case of cat-to-human rabies transmission in the United States in decades, and cats very rarely spread rabies to any species. It is also very rare for anyone to catch toxoplasmosis from a cat, especially community cats who generally avoid contact with people. Plague risk is minimal in the United States in general, and cases transmitted by cats are even more negligible.
The only reason we can see to bring up this irrelevant topic is to drive readers to fear cats living outdoors in their natural environment, if the article’s findings didn’t already make them fearful (and by all means, they shouldn’t). These paragraphs bring the intent of the article in general into question.
Fearmongering Media Headlines and False Information
Nearly all media outlets reporting on this article use shock value headlines to drive engagement, which is a dishonorable practice and potentially even deadly for cats and kittens. But the article in the Daily Mail is particularly shameful in its factual errors.
The Daily Mail article states “free-ranging cats are responsible for preying on 347 endangered species.” Preying implies that the cats killed those species. The study simply presents evidence that cats have consumed 347 species that are on a list of “conservation concern.” The Daily Mail piece also says “free-ranging cats are responsible for killing 347 endangered or threatened species” in the caption of one of the images used in the article, which is again untrue.
The article also states that “the study broke down the diet of these pets, finding they mostly feast on birds, reptiles and mammals, with insects and amphibians on the lighter side.” Here, the Daily Mail is using the term “diet” in a misleading way. The study is not looking at what cats regularly consume; it is offering a list of every species that a cat has ever been found to consume.
The Daily Mail article also falsely claims that “researchers used a method called observed predation to learn what animals free-ranging cats prey upon using the applications of camera traps and animal-borne video.” The study’s authors didn’t directly observe any cats eating anything. Their article is a literature review that looks at other studies.
Most egregiously, the article states that “researchers found that cats consumed roughly 47 percent of birds, 22 percent of reptiles, and 20 percent of mammals, with approximately 10 percent of insects, amphibians, and other prey.” This makes it sound like cats consumed 47 percent of all bird species, 22 percent of all reptile species, etc. That is incorrect; the percentages only refer to the species found within the list of 533 studies. Though with the way the numbers are presented in the study, we believe that’s an easy mistake to make.
So, What IS the Point of the Article?
In our 34 years in action, Alley Cat Allies has seen studies and articles in scientific journals utilized without basis to demonize cats, spread misinformation about their place in our communities and in ecosystems, and create policy for the mass slaughter of cats and kittens.
With the way things are unfolding, we fear this recent article will follow that same path. The article’s authors’ mischaracterization of cats as “indiscriminate predators” and an “invasive species,” along with the inclusion of irrelevant and inaccurate language about cats being a public health threat suggest the authors have reached a conclusion about cats and are attempting to create numbers that inspire a specific approach to cats outdoors.
The article refers to a “strong impetus to advance policy and management initiatives that seek to reduce the impacts of free-ranging cats,” but what, exactly, are those policy and management initiatives? Alley Cat Allies believes they are referring to “trap and kill” programs.
Lethal approaches were utilized over decades upon decades to “manage” community cat populations to no avail due to a phenomenon known as the Vacuum Effect. That doesn’t keep “experts” from calling to retread old ground and slaughter cats needlessly every other week—with the bloody bill falling to taxpayers, of course.
Lethal cat control schemes fail to provide long-term population management, cause collateral damage to other animals and to local ecosystems, and bring unacceptably high moral costs. Slaughter is not conservation. There is no humane or responsible way to attempt to wipe out an entire population of animals in an ecosystem. Beyond that, science does not support the notion that killing cats protects endangered species from population decline.
That false premise aside, if the goal is to stabilize community cat populations and improve their wellbeing, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is the only humane and effective approach.
G. Robert Weedon, DVM, MPH, who has extensive veterinary experience and cat expertise, explains it well: “One struggles to imagine a feasible alternative to TNR. Put more bluntly: If not TNR, then what? The indiscriminate killing of healthy cats has been the default ‘management’ approach for more than 100 years in the US despite the lack of any evidence that it has been effective. If the article’s authors seek to stabilize outdoor cat numbers, they should embrace TNR and the mounting body of scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness.”
However, again, stabilizing community cat populations is not the same thing as protecting wildlife. Cats are not primary threats to wildlife populations, endangered or otherwise.
The authors of this article want to protect wildlife. So do all of us at Alley Cat Allies, and so do those reading this piece right now. But we must focus on real threats: development, climate change, habitat loss, pollution, deforestation, fires, mining, toxic chemicals like pesticides, and other human-led activities.
We will not stand by as cats’ lives are threatened by articles that are misinterpreted or misleading, tabloid-style headlines, and researcher bias, intentional or not. Cats deserve better, wildlife—especially endangered species—deserve better, and so do we all.