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Nine lives required: the hazards encountered by free-roaming cats

27 Sep, 13 | by Assistant Editor


Should cats be kept indoors or allowed to roam freely? In the UK, the large majority of the estimated 8 million cats are ‘indoor-outdoor’ cats that spend some proportion of their time exploring outside the house. Often, these cats are free to come and go as they please, undertaking behaviours such as prowling, marking territory and hunting away from home.

However, over recent years, some UK cat owners have considered the decision to keep their cats indoors. The RSPCA notes that there is still uncertainty about whether indoor-only cats are healthier than outdoor cats, but suggests that if cats are kept indoors from an early age and provided with plenty of stimulation and entertainment, they can adapt well to being confined to the home.

One of the main arguments for keeping cats indoors is that outdoor cats encounter a large range of hazards and tend to have reduced lifespans compared to indoor cats. This may affect the health and welfare of the cat and also means that outdoor cats are likely to present to a vet with very different problems (including infectious disease and injury) compared to indoor cats.

Up until now, there has been little scientific research into the lives of outdoor cats, but modern digital technology has created new opportunities, and a recent study by a team from the University of Georgia and National Geographic published in Veterinary Record set out to see first-hand what free-roaming cats in a US town experience.

The researchers sought cat owners to volunteer in the city of Athens, Georgia, USA, and asked them to fit their cats with a video camera designed to give a cats-eye-view without disturbing the cat’s behaviour.

‘While it is commonly stated that roaming cats live shorter lives due to injury, disease, and vehicular accidents, there was very little information available on how often our pets may encounter dangerous situations in the suburban outdoors,’ explains author Kerrie Anne Loyd. ‘The use of animal-borne cameras allowed us to objectively examine and quantify all of the activities pet cats experienced while roaming.’


A cat wearing a KittyCam

Fifty-five cats were included in the study and more than 2000 hours of footage was collected and analysed. The results were compelling.

The video footage revealed that the Athens cats encountered a large number of hazards in their daily lives, including exploring storm drains, having contact with unknown cats and crawling into small spaces in buildings where they could become trapped.

The most common risk encountered was, perhaps unsurprisingly, moving vehicles, with a total of 178 incidents of cats crossing roads recorded.

But some of the hazardous activities were ones that owners may be unlikely to be aware of. For example, one-fifth of the cats consumed liquids and solids away from the home, which the authors state may pose a risk of poisoning. Cats were witnessed drinking from old children’s paddling pools filled with rainwater, puddles in parking lots and the storm drain system. They were also witnessed eating a wide range of things including roadkill, rubbish and compost.

‘Parking lot puddles and runoff from roads and parking lots may be contaminated with anti-freeze or other dangerous chemicals. Food left out for stray cats may become mouldy or infested with ants.’ Notes Loyd, ‘Pet owners can reduce this risk by making sure that roaming cats have access to fresh food and water outside their home. Contact with other roaming cats poses a health risk to pets – feline immunodeficiency virus is just one of the many infectious diseases that may be acquired from contact with other outdoor or stray cats.’


A cat meets a canine neighbour

The authors were also found that four of the 55 cats visited other homes during the period and were petted and fed by other people. In several cases, cats repeatedly returned to other houses and interacted with the people living there.

Although no encounters with larger predators were recorded, one cat did meet and ward off an opossum and the video footage of the event can be viewed here.


Encounter with a possum

Another major risk behaviour was cats visiting places where they could become lost or trapped, with 20 per cent of the cats either spending time in storm drains (posing a risk of drowning in a flood event) or entering the crawl spaces underneath buildings or houses.

When the results were analysed statistically, the authors found that some cats were more likely than others to show risky behaviours. Males were significantly more likely than females to undertake risks (including crossing roads), and cats seemed to become more cautious as they got older, with the number of hazardous incidents decreasing in line with age.

While the results cannot be extrapolated to every outdoor cat, with cats that roam in the inner-city or very rural country probably experiencing different risks, the paper shows that free-roaming pet cats experience a wide variety of hazards.

Kerrie Anne Loyd states, ‘In addition to documented risks, we are aware that many pet cats become lost while roaming, and three of our initial volunteers had to withdraw because their pets became lost or critically injured before we could get the video cameras on their cats.’ She suggests that owners could reduce these risks by considering an indoor life for their cat.

Video footage from the study can be viewed on the KittyCam Project page here.

Bark more likely than bite? Sterilisation programmes in India

9 May, 13 | by sarahbrown


Human dog bite injuries are a major public health problem, particularly where there are large populations of free-roaming or street dogs. In countries with endemic rabies, the bites of animals are the main means of transmission of this disease and dogs are accountable for 91.5 per cent of all bite wounds in India. Bites by dogs were also responsible for 96.2 per cent of human rabies cases in India. But despite the public health importance of dog bites, there has been little research into the causes or means of prevention.

In India, control of free-roaming dog populations has been attempted using animal birth control (ABC) programmes. Jack Reece and co-authors have previously reported that the ABC approach has been successful in controlling both the street dog population and rabies. The objective of their current study, recently published in Veterinary Record, was to determine if a relationship exists between the reproductive behaviour of dogs and human dog bites.1 Reece and his co-workers at Help in Suffering, Jaipur, had noted that the dispersal of pups of street dog litters from the dam occurred between 90 and 120 days after whelping. Anecdotal evidence from animal control personnel in the city indicated that bitches would often try to protect their two-to-three-month-old pups by biting personnel.

Canine reproduction has been found to be seasonal in Jaipur, with peak whelping activity in November. Humans being bitten by animals, as reported by the main government hospital in Jaipur, showed a seasonal trend with peaks in January and June; approximately 10 weeks after the seasonal peak of street dog breeding.

The authors found that, following the start of an ABC programme in 1996, the percentage total of the female dog population that had been spayed, rose quickly and has remained at between 70 and 80 per cent since 2003. They also observed that the number of human animal bite cases has declined since then, despite a rapidly expanding human population.

Children represent the biggest proportion of bite patients in India

They conclude that, whereas sterilisation could not have led to an immediate halt in the growth of the dog population, the rapid increase in the percentage of spayed females may have prevented the further increase in bite frequency, if dog bites are indeed primarily due to bitches trying to protect their puppies.

They add that the results of their study suggests that, in addition to the benefits of rabies control, ABC programmes may have an effect on the numbers of human animal bite cases that far exceed the effects of reducing the dog population to the same level by indiscriminate culling.

Jack Reece explained, ‘The ABC programme at Help in Suffering (HIS) was set up to gather data about the effects of such programmes. HIS is an animal welfare charity, not a veterinary research institute, which is why my colleagues and I not only sterilise and vaccinate large numbers of street dogs (3199 sterilisations last year; 81 in the last week), but also monitor the effects and record data on many aspects of the work, including the street dog population and biology. Animal welfare is clearly a driving force for veterinary surgeons and animal welfare charities such as HIS, but it is unlikely to influence political leaders or bureaucrats. It’s for this reason that the HIS team have tried, where possible, to show human health benefits to ABC work; by publishing such benefits in peer-reviewed international veterinary journals, we hope that these decision makers may change their policies from ineffective culling and removal to more effective humane dog population control. As ordinary practicing veterinary surgeons, rather than academic researchers, it is pleasing to be able to suggest that our veterinary work has a direct and measurable affect on the health and the safety of the public – an example perhaps of the currently fashionable ‘One Health’ concept.

Reece, J. F., Chawla, S. K. & Hilby, A. R. (2013) Decline in human dog bite cases during a street dog sterilisation programme in Jaipur, India. Veterinary Record doi: 10.1136/vr.101079

Turning tables: Examining vets and clients

28 Jan, 13 | by sarahbrown


A recent Veterinary Record publication looks at the behaviour of vets and clients when given the opportunity to discuss animal welfare.                    

Dog vaccination appointments are a good opportunity to discuss welfare/ behavioural concerns

Dog vaccination appointments are a good opportunity to discuss welfare/ behavioural concerns


VETS are placed in high regard by owners when entrusted with their pets’ welfare, however, animal welfare, as defined by the BVA’s Ethics and Welfare group ‘relates to both the physical health and mental wellbeing of the animal.’ It has been suggested that the veterinary profession could do more to provide behaviour support.1

A paper recently published in Veterinary Record carried out a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ investigation into animal welfare discussions, videoing 17 booster vaccination consultations, involving six vets, over two small animal practices and then asking the owner to fill out a post-consultation questionnaire.2 Clients tend to visit their practice when their pet is unwell, so a booster vaccination appointment was seen as a good opportunity to discuss welfare issues.

On reviewing the video consultations, authors Mandy Roshier and Anne McBride identified five main topics of discussion: navigation (ie, directing the consultation), medical, husbandry, behaviour and cost. The vets were found to instigate discussion on all of these topics with the exception of behaviour, which was found to be shared between the vets and clients – it was also the least discussed welfare topic. The subsequent owner questionnaire, however, revealed that all clients had concerns about at least one behaviour of their dogs and five clients indicated that they considered this behaviour ‘a big problem’. Only one client mentioned their concern (jumping up on people) to the vet and this was not fully explored.  Another vet asked about a dog’s behaviour around other people; the client acknowledged that the dog was aggressive towards his wife but, again, the vet did not take this discussion any further.

The onus of identifying and reporting a behaviour issue lies with the owner, as it may not be obvious at the consultation, and the authors provide suggestions as to how vets can help to facilitate these discussions, such as developing trust and rapport, having a ‘safe’ environment to encourage disclosure and also creating opportunities to raise concerns.

Mandy had this to say: ‘In addition to vets, owners have the opportunity to access welfare information from a wide variety of sources, not all sources are reliable.  In this study, behaviour concerns were not mentioned and this leads us to ask how, or if these concerns are being addressed.  It is therefore important that vets enable their clients to discuss behaviour issues and provide appropriate support, be that directly or via referral.

This study highlights areas that could be researched further to understand the practising of behavioural medicine. It is apparent, however, that vets and owners need to work together to provide the best possible welfare for their pets.


1. McMillan, F. D. & Rollin, B. E. (2001) The presence of mind: on reunifying the animal mind and body. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 218, 1723-1727

2.  Roshier, A. & McBride, E. (2012) Canine behaviour problems between veterinarians and dogs owners during annual booster consultations. Veterinary Record dpi: 10.1136/vr.101125




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