Cats Versus Birds: The Limits of Ethics

February 3, 2013

Morality does not always provide us with a definitive answer about what’s right and what’s wrong, even when pain and suffering are involved.  This is especially true when we try to extend moral reasoning beyond its usual territory—as when we try to weigh benefits to cats against harm to birds.

Warning:  This post is on the longish side, in part because I want to talk about my cats.  Also, be aware that it contains descriptions of violence and death.  Finally, it contains remorseless anthropomorphizing, particularly with respect to attributing emotions to cats. 

For those who want the conclusion up front, it’s this: The normative claim that pet cats always should be kept indoors has no solid basis to support it. This claim assumes an ability to assess the interests of cats and determine their real interests are contrary to their apparent desires and instinctual behavior, and, to the extent it is predicated on the fact that cats kill birds and other animals when outdoors, it also assumes an ability to weigh the competing interests of several species with such precision that we can make a confident moral judgment about which species’ interests should prevail.

I am motivated to write this post because of the recent report that cats kill about 2.4 billion birds a year (also about 12.3 billion mammals, but most of the lamentations about killer cats have focused on birds).   Feral cats are responsible for most of the killing, but pet cats allowed outdoors also contribute to the avian slaughter.  There has been much finger-wagging at cat owners who don’t keep their cats inside. The New York Times article on the report states that all environmentalists and animal welfare advocates concur that “pet cats should not be allowed to prowl around the neighborhood at all,” and that cat owners who allow their cats to do so “are being irresponsible.”

Permit me to dissent.

Personal cat history

Our first cat entered our home in 1986 after my wife visited the animal shelter with my then young son and daughter, and a certain black feline, later named Mephisto, proved irresistible.  I was not consulted about this sudden expansion of our family, and I was none too happy, in part because I am a light sleeper (I knew that cats have a sleep pattern decidedly different than humans) and I thought from prior experience I might have a mild cat allergy. Sure enough, I sneezed for a month after Mephisto’s arrival and she often awakened me at 3:00 a.m., but these obstacles were eventually overcome and Mephisto was granted permanent resident status.  However, it seemed to me that Mephisto did not seem altogether happy and alternated between being skittish and bored.

At the time, we lived next to a major thoroughfare, and to protect her from being run over by cars, we kept Mephisto indoors. 

In 1990, we moved further out in the suburbs into a subdivision that has houses with medium-sized lots.  Our house is also on a cul-de-sac, so traffic is very light.  We gradually introduced Mephisto to the outdoors. There was a dramatic shift in her behavior and, to the extent to which I could detect it, in her emotional state.  She sought our company more often and did not jump at the slightest noise.  Moreover, if the frequency at which she asked to be let outside was any indication, she enjoyed immensely being able to spend time outside the house. 

She also enjoyed hunting.

Mephisto was already three when she joined us, so she was about seven when we made our move in 1990.  Not exactly on the young side for a cat.  I was not sure she retained the agility and vigor to hunt.  She did.  One morning, about a year after we moved to our new residence, I was sipping coffee and idly looking outside at Mephisto, who was sitting on her haunches in the driveway.  Suddenly, she leaped up several feet, caught a bird in her mouth, and broke its neck—all in one fluid motion.  It may have been the most graceful action I have ever witnessed.

Mephisto killed maybe a dozen birds over the years with us.  I could keep a rough count, because, as with many cats, she brought the kill home and placed it on our doorstep. Twice she was not successful in killing the bird quickly.  On one occasion I euthanized the bird; it was obviously badly hurt.  (If you must know: I used a baseball bat.)  On the other occasion, the bird flew away on its own power, apparently after being momentarily stunned. 

Mephisto lived until she was twenty, quite an old age for a cat.

Eventually, three cats succeeded her. All enjoy going outside (see photo), although only one hunts with regularity. That said, this cat (named Virginia Woolf because she demands a room of her own) is an accomplished hunter. VW kills mostly voles and chipmunks, but there is the occasional bird.

All the cats seem happy and contented, to the extent one can attribute such emotional states to cats.  Moreover, as you can imagine, with regular exercise outdoors, none of them suffers from obesity which is increasingly a problem for many companion animals. 

As one can tell from my summary, I reject the claim that I have some sort of obligation to keep my cats indoors. My cats want to go outside, and they appear to be physically and emotionally healthier as a result. Based on what reading I have done about cat conduct and psychology, my cats do not seem unusual in this regard. 

But let us examine the arguments in favor of confining cats to the indoors. 

It is safer for the cat

In some sense, sure. It is also safer for humans never to venture outside. You are much more likely to catch an infectious disease or be involved in a car accident if you leave your home. However, most of us would regard home confinement as a severe punishment, not an appropriate safety measure. We want to be with other people and experience things that cannot be found within the limits of our residence. Why would we think a cat would prefer a less risky lifestyle if the cost of reducing risk is a life of confinement and boredom?  If given the choice between living 60 years of a normal human life, with our usual interactions, and 70 years of a life in which one’s activities were severely restricted, which would you choose?

Granted, if the risks of imminent death or serious injury to the cat are high (e.g., you live next to a busy road, as I once did), prudence may require confinement.  But such a choice should be made with regret, not because it is the best lifestyle for cats.

And who gave the self-appointed authorities the moral insight to decide that confinement of cats, when risk is manageable, is in their best interests? Of course, it is a reasonable assumption that animals do not want to be in pain, but how is it we can decide for them that it is appropriate to frustrate their ingrained inclinations when the risk of pain is low?

What about the birds?

What about them?  Let us leave aside the possible situation where some bird species is threatened with extinction, as that’s a special case (and it relates more to control of feral cats). Instead, just focus on the routine killing of birds by cats. Must we prevent our pet cats from engaging in this activity? Naturally, at least in the short-term, this benefits birds (in the long-term, there could be population problem). However, it also deprives cats of an activity which appears to be of psychological, and probably physical, benefit to them. Where’s the moral scale that allows us to determine with confidence that the interest of birds in not being hunted outweighs the interest of cats in being allowed to hunt? We allow humans to hunt, and for humans this behavior appears much less instinctual or necessary for a fulfilling life than it does for cats.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily irrational to think bird interests outweigh cat interests. I’m suggesting we don’t have the ability to evaluate these competing interests in such a way that we can make a confident moral judgment about the obligation of cat owners to confine their cats.

The ethical payoff

As I have argued in some previous posts, morality is best understood as a practical enterprise. It’s a practical human enterprise. It’s a means of adjusting our behavior so we can live together in peace and in a way that facilitates cooperation and amelioration of harmful conditions. Over millennia, we have developed norms that serve these purposes, and we have also developed a corresponding sense of how to weigh, at least approximately, the interests of humans when they are in conflict.

The extent to which nonhuman animals are members of the moral community, and the nature of our obligations to them, remain a matter of controversy. One reason for this continuing controversy is the difficulty we have in evaluating the competing interests of humans and other animals.

But at least when we weigh human interests against the interests of other animals we have a fairly solid understanding of one side of the scale. When we weigh the interests of one nonhuman species against another, we are operating in the dark and engaging in moral speculation, if not straying outside the bounds of morality completely.

In this post I have referred to cats’ enjoying things and being frustrated. Can I accurately attribute such human sentiments to cats? Probably not, but it’s the best approximation I can make because I’m not a cat.

Thomas Nagel famously argued we have no idea what it’s like to be a bat. Let me suggest we also don’t have a good idea of what it is like to be a cat or a bird, let alone how to compare being a cat to being a bird, and that it’s morally arrogant to assume otherwise.


#1 Thomas B (Guest) on Monday February 04, 2013 at 7:35am

I completely agree with you.  When people keep indoor dogs, it goes without saying that the animal must be taken outside and allowed to run every now and then.  But somehow people don’t seem to think that cats also need exercise.  They have a psychological need to let off steam, to run, to climb things, and yes to stalk.  My cats between them only manage to catch three or four birds a year.  I can tell because while they eat the bird, they leave the feathers.  Judging by the number of birds flocking my feeders, it does not seem to be any great drain on their population.

#2 DebGod on Monday February 04, 2013 at 9:24am

Just pointing out one small thing.  Ron, you wrote: “Mephisto killed maybe a dozen birds over the years with us.  I could keep a rough count, because, as with many cats, she brought the kill home and placed it on our doorstep.”

One of the KittyCam researchers said,

“It was also surprising to learn that cats only brought 23 percent of their kills back to a residence.”

If that’s the case, there’s a good chance the cat was killing more animals than those you were aware of (maybe four times more!).

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday February 05, 2013 at 6:19am

Thanks, Deb, for pointing out the possibility of an undercount on bird kills by Mephisto. I suspected she was holding out on me!

#4 DebGod on Tuesday February 05, 2013 at 7:47am

Ha, no problem. My family cat Bink was a super-fit indoor/outdoor cat when I lived at my mom’s house in a cul-de-sac in the ‘burbs.  Like Mephisto, he lived to a ripe old age.  He was quite the little killer, too, particularly bunnies, and in a super-suburban development like that, I couldn’t imagine that there was much concern about a decrease in the bunny population.

I think feral cats are a different matter, though.

#5 Vancouver Guy on Monday February 11, 2013 at 5:13pm

Yes, let them eat birds. Let them eat rats. Lets them eat mice. Let them eat cat food? No way. Earn their food I say.

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