The recent study, “Cats Are Rare Where Coyotes Roam” (Kays, R. et al. Journal of Mammalogy, Advance Access published June 24, 2015), shows how the presence of coyotes potentially limits the negative impacts of cats on native birds and small mammals. It is a welcome addition to our knowledge of the ecology of coyotes and cats. From this study, we should also recognize that the presence of coyotes may contribute to the loss of cats due to coyote predation in contemporary communities.
Indeed, there are many indications coyotes and cats exist in a predator / prey relationship and that this may be an important reason for the absence of cats in some settings. Essentially, cats are another food source for coyotes, and this appears to be true not only in the case of feral cats but also for free-roaming cats and so-called inside /outside cats. From the coyote’s standpoint, cats are not much different from many of the prey items that are found in its regular diet; small mammals, such as rabbits, rodents, woodchucks, as well as birds, insects, and the occasional deer are common prey for coyotes. Some accounts suggest cats may be a much easier prey animal.
Some light is shed on the connection between coyotes and cats by information available for 2014 from a coyote reporting system used in Orange County. This online reporting process was created to help with the monitoring and management of coyotes as an emergent animal issue within the county.
Twenty-two (22) cats were reported missing as a perceived result of coyotes in 2014. Cats were reported to be lost more than twice as much as the number of dogs (5) and chickens (4) combined. While not scientifically confirmed, these losses were typically associated with the increasing presence of coyotes as indicated by visual and/or auditory observations.
Residents of different neighborhoods reported indoor/outdoor cats had all but disappeared over a period of months. These losses were often initially experienced as private, but through social networks – virtual and real alike – people learned that they were shared with others. A number of cats were lost in each neighborhood, with one neighborhood nearing double digits and another reaching that mark.
An important step in protecting cats and other pets from coyote predation is getting the word out early. Coyotes may well be heard by a discerning ear, but they are seldom seen, because of their stealth and wile ways. This predator is arguably the hardiest and most adaptable species on our continent. Adaptations honed by their evolution continue to serve them well not only in rural settings, but also in the urban and suburban communities in which they are now found.
As wildlife experts commonly observe, coyotes are carnivores that are no less interested in cats than other prey species because they are “opportunistic feeders.” What this means is that they will feed on a variety of food sources, depending on what is most readily available and easy to obtain. Recognition of their opportunistic nature means that it is incumbent on cat owners and caretakers to ensure the safety of their cats in settings in which coyotes are known to exist.
Yet it does not appear to be widely understood that cats are prey as well as predator. This understanding was not apparent, for instance, in the Orange County reports made by residents who believed coyotes were responsible for the disappearance of their own and others’ cats. Interestingly, they nearly all indicated there was not a food source for coyotes. It appears even when outdoor cats are believed to be consumed by coyotes, owners are still not fully connecting that a cat is a readily available food source if left outside.
But there is a predator/prey relation between coyotes and cats just as there is one between cats and native species as highlighted in the recent study on the ecology of coyotes and cats. It can be argued that today this imposes new responsibilities on the owners, keepers, and caretakers of cats who are otherwise themselves at risk in our communities.
Perhaps there is no safer solution in the long run other than keeping cats indoors. An alternative is a secure outside enclosure, such as a “catio,” which have become increasingly fashionable. They can refashion the very meaning of indoor/outdoor cat, and in doing so, protect our feline friends from the assorted threats they face outside, including coyotes. That might help alleviate the negative impacts coyotes cause to cats as well as the detrimental impacts cats have on our native wildlife.
Jason M. Allen is the Piedmont regional wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Robert A. Marotto is the animal services director for Orange County.