Why cats are an invasive alien species

Why cats are an invasive alien species
The designation, while unwelcome by some feline lovers, is needed to address the problems caused by cats.

Conservationists often have to educate the public about how to identify invasive species like the spotted lanternfly and Asian carp. But the Polish Academy of Sciences just added another animal to its list of invasive alien species, and it might be in the same room with you right now: the domestic cat.

To be designated an “invasive alien species,” cats needed to meet two criteria: They had to be non-native, and they had to “cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Cats actually meet both of these criteria, and not just in Poland. Here in the United States, too, felines can have a huge effect on the environment, and not in a good way.

This designation of the Polish Academy of Sciences is meant mostly for educational purposes and to inform policymaking. It in no way means that people in Poland can’t have pet cats, but it is an important step in growing awareness about the significant ecological harm cats can cause.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t name cats in its partial listing of invasive species in the U.S., but it did say they are invasive in a paper published last year. These moves by the Polish Academy of Sciences and the USDA, while unwelcome by some cat lovers, are needed steps in addressing the problems caused by cats.

Scientific research shows that cats were likely domesticated in Middle Eastern farming villages, and from there people spread the species around the world. So the Polish Academy of Sciences considers them to be non-native — unlike the wildcat and lynx, which are both native to Poland.

So cats are “alien” in Poland, and the U.S. But cats are famous for helping people by eating pests like rats and mice (as well as being welcome companions to frazzled pet owners). Cats have even been used in American cities specifically for pest control. Some Chicago residents claim that a group of cats was the only thing that could keep their backyards rat-free.

But while cats seem to have some success in keeping rats out of specific spots, studies have found that cats are better at making us think there are fewer rats than at actually eliminating them. When scientists observed cats and rats in a recycling plant in Brooklyn, they found that cats would make rats run for cover, but that they only managed to kill a grand total of two.

A study that observed cats and rats in Baltimore alleys found more cases of cats hunting rats but no connection between the number of cats in an alley and the number of rats. While humans would like the cats to hunt the rats, cats are generalists that eat a wide range of food, and sometimes cats even eat the same food as rats — at the same time. City rats may also simply be too large for cats to bother to hunt, preferring smaller prey.

But while rats may be too big, lots of other animals are just the right size — and not all of them are mice. In Poland, cats eat an estimated 136 million birds every year, a number that researchers called “alarming,” as the number of birds in farming areas decreased by 20% between 2000 and 2018.

In the U.S., cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year, more than double the number of birds killed by cars, windows, wind turbines, power lines and communication towers combined. And this is all on top of the estimated 478 million reptiles, 173 million amphibians and 12.3 billion mammals that cats in the U.S. kill every year. Some of those mammals are undoubtedly mice. Many are not. An Australian study found that feral, or free-ranging unowned cats, prey on 400 different species there, including 28 threatened and endangered species.

HEALTH & TECHNOLOGY
Why cats are an invasive alien species, and what to do about it
The designation, while unwelcome by some feline lovers, is needed to address the problems caused by cats.
A Cat Sits
Jope, a 1-year-old cat who is waiting to be adopted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, on July 8.Matt Stone / MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images file
Aug. 8, 2022, 8:04 PM +07
By Adam Larson, writer and science communicator
Conservationists often have to educate the public about how to identify invasive species like the spotted lanternfly and Asian carp. But the Polish Academy of Sciences just added another animal to its list of invasive alien species, and it might be in the same room with you right now: the domestic cat.

To be designated an “invasive alien species,” cats needed to meet two criteria: They had to be non-native, and they had to “cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Cats actually meet both of these criteria, and not just in Poland. Here in the United States, too, felines can have a huge effect on the environment, and not in a good way.

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