Cats and Rats, an Urban Legend

This Post is Prepared by Donnie Dann

Rats, the very word sends shivers up the spines of many. And well it should as rats are major disease carriers responsive for a host of illnesses including plague and rat-bite fever. When city dwellers observe rats feeding on trash in back alleys the call is heard loud and determined, “bring in those feral cats and control these rats”.

A recent article appeared in a local Chicago publication, “dna info” entitled Rat-Packed Chicago Has 3-Month Waitlist For Feral Cats As Demand ‘Explodes’. At first glance one would think YES!, cats are the perfect predator to rid us of those detested rats. But do they? And if so is the solution worse than the problem?

The extensive scientific literature on the subject refutes the claim that cats are effective rat predators. One example from a peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Plos/One, includes the following paragraph. Typical of many science based papers the entire article is lengthy and esoteric, so I’ve excerpted a short section:

Studies of house cat predatory behavior in Baltimore have supported numerous other reports [10], [26] that suggested cats only occasionally killed rats and rarely have a numerical impact on the prey population, (emphasis mine) though they can qualitatively affect its structure. Jackson [16] found that Norway rats were food items in only 6.7% of feral cat feces. He also reported that there was no demonstrable relationship between the frequency of cat predation and the abundance of either rats or cats in the alleys. Childs [20], [27] also observed that cat predation on Norway rats was rare — only witnessing five attacks in more than 900 hours of observation. (Please write me directly for the actual scientific articles referenced by the names or numbers shown above).

We’re left with anecdotal evidence and opinions like “Once we brought the cats in the rats disappeared”. Rats are cagey beasts, acclimate to the presence of cats and move to a safer location, an alley distant from the cat colony. The rats may scurry away, but as adults are rarely predated by cats. The safest and surest way to eliminate the rat problem is to eliminate their food. Use rat-proof garbage cans with effective self-closing lids.

Meanwhile our nation’s cats, an estimated 100 million feral and 50 million owned but free-roaming, are seriously assailing human health. Cats are the only source of toxoplasmosis, a devastating parasite to pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. They are also the primary domestic vector for rabies, and highly allergenic to many. As to the nation’s wildlife, outdoor cats are responsible for killing approximately 2.4 billion birds and 12.5 billion small mammals annually.

For a highly informative dialogue on the problem of our nations abundant cat population, I strongly commend this link to your reading.

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