And why the only safe house cat is an indoor cat
By Liz Stelow D.V.M.
One evening, just after dark, a neighbor called me, asking if I could grab my stethoscope and meet her outside at the curb. She had inadvertently startled a coyote carrying a house cat, and, since he had dropped the cat, she wanted me to verify that the cat was dead. She was.
The cat had no ID tags and I didn’t recognize her, so I had no family to whom to return the body. With sadness, I left her on the sidewalk for the coyote, who was standing a mere 15 feet away. Less than a minute later, he was returning to his family with a meal.
If you live in the suburbs, you’ve probably heard about someone’s cat being carried off by a coyote. Until a few decades ago, coyotes were denizens of the rural hinterlands. They happily hunted wild rabbits and were an occasional annoyance to sheep farmers who had brought irresistibly tasty meals into the coyotes’ territory.
As our suburban sprawl began to encroach on foothill and fields, taking over the habitats of other animals, the coyotes did the natural thing and took advantage of what humans had to offer. They started hunting on our suburban streets at night, adding domestic cats – and also small dogs – to their diet. Today, the adaptable coyotes are found living in increasingly urban environments, where wild rabbits are scarce but house cats are plentiful.
When my husband and I lived in a suburban southern California foothill community, coyotes casually walked our streets night and day. During the day, they were less plentiful and a little skittish, crossing the street to avoid human contact. At night, they could be heard in greater numbers, calling to their pack members or celebrating a kill. Everyone knew about them and most people accepted them as a necessary nuisance of living in the foothills.
Indoors / outdoors
On the night of this particular incident, my neighbor, who owned three indoor/outdoor cats herself, returned to her house to make sure her cats were safe indoors. They were. But she let them back outside the next morning and every morning after that. This always perplexed me, as we saw coyotes at all hours. I suspect that her perception was that they were night hunters and her cats were safe during the day. Luckily, her cats lived into their mature years without experiencing a coyote bite. But, I was always intrigued by her lack of interest in doing the only thing you can to protect your cat from a coyote.
A safe outdoor cattery is the best way for kitties to spend time outside the house
I used to get calls at the animal shelter where I worked, asking if there were effective coyote repellents or if a 6-foot fence was good enough protection for a pet cat. In reality, there is no foolproof way to keep a coyote away from a cat when it’s outdoors at ground level. Cats, not always aware of their peril, wander outside the fortresses set up by their owners. Gates get left open. Screens on porches can tear. And, although I have heard of cats putting up such a fight that the coyote was thwarted, most cats are unsuccessful in defending themselves once attacked.
But, I’ve never heard of a coyote taking a cat from inside her home. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons indoor-only cats tend to live twice as long as their indoor/outdoor counterparts.
There are hundreds of websites showing outdoor cat enclosures that are easy to build or buy. A few examples:
The Stanford Cat Network
Outdoor Cat Enclosures
How to Build a Cat Enclosure
Liz Stelow is a veterinarian living in Davis, California. She is also a busy mom and the author of a pet health blog at PetDoctorMom.com.