The Most Important Cat Study Ever Has Been Completed, And The Results Are In

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance in cat-related research, with insightful studies about feline behavior coming from researchers in the US and Japan.

On the other hand there’s been a glut of research into feline predatory impact and public policy, and the majority of those studies have been deeply flawed. They’re based on suspect data and tainted by the interests of people who are more interested in blaming cats for killing birds than they are in learning about the real impact of domestic felines on local wildlife.

Those studies have all taken extreme shortcuts — using data that was collected for entirely different studies, for example, or handing out questionnaires that at best lead to highly subjective and speculative “data” on how cats affect the environment.

Several widely-cited studies that put the blame on cats for the extirpation of bird species have relied on wild guesses about the cat population in the US, estimating there are between 20 million and 120 million free-roaming domestic cats in the country. If you’re wondering how scientists can offer meaningful conclusions about the impact of cats when even they admit they could be off by 100 million, you’re not alone.

No one had ever actually counted the number of cats in a location, much less come close to a real figure — until now.

When leaders in Washington, D.C., set out to tackle the feral cat problem in their city, they knew they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem unless they knew its scope. They turned to the University of Maryland for help, which led to the D.C. Cat Count, a three-year undertaking to get an accurate census with the help of interested groups like the Humane Society and the Smithsonian.

DC Cat Count
An image from one of 1,530 motion-activated cameras deployed for the D.C. Cat Count. Credit: D.C. Cat Count

The researchers approached each of their local shelters and rescues for data, then assembled a meticulous household survey to get a handle on how many pet cats live in the city, and how many have access to the outdoors.

Finally — and most critically — they used 1,530 motion-activated cameras, which took a combined 6 million photos in parks, alleys, public spaces, streets and outdoor areas of private residences. They also developed methods for filtering out multiple images of individual cats, as well as other wildlife. And to supplement the data, team members patrolled 337 miles of paths and roads in a “transect count” to verify camera-derived data and collect additional information, like changes in the way local cats move through neighborhoods.

DC Cat Count
A cat who looks a lot like the Budster was captured in this 2019 photo from a motion-activated camera with night vision. Credit: DC Cat Count

Now that all the data’s been collected and analyzed, the D.C. Cat Count finally has a figure: There are about 200,000 cats in the city, according to the study.

Of those, 98.5 percent — or some 197,000 kitties — are either pets or are under some form of human care and protection, whether they’re just fed by people or they’re given food, outdoor shelter and TNR.

“Some people may look at our estimate and say, oh, well, you know, you’re not 100% certain that it’s exactly 200,000 cats,” Tyler Flockhart, a population ecologist who worked on the count, told DCist. “But what we can say is that we are very confident that the number of cats is about 200,000 in Washington, D.C.”

The study represents the most complete and accurate census of the local cat population in any US city to date, and the team behind it is sharing its methods so other cities can conduct their own accurate counts. (They’ll also need money: While the D.C. Cat Count relied on help from volunteers and local non-profits it was still a huge project involving a large team of pros, and it cost the city $1.5 million.)

By doing things the hard way — and the right way — D.C. is also the first American city to make truly informed choices on how to manage its feline population. No matter what happens from here, one thing’s certain — the city’s leaders will be guided by accurate data and not creating policy based on ignorance and hysteria painting cats as furry little boogeymen.

DC Cat Count
Not all the photos captured images of cats, and not all the felines were little: In this 2019 night image, a bobcat wanders in front of a trail camera. Credit: DC Cat Count

10 thoughts on “The Most Important Cat Study Ever Has Been Completed, And The Results Are In”

  1. Good information. Hopefully the inaccurate studies will be challenged. I’m so tired of them being trotted out to justify cruel actions against cats.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post and I completely agree, especially about the shoddy research that is always used to blame cats for declines in bird populations. As you know it was all based on estimates, extrapolations, and speculation. There’s a chapter in my book about this, and a post on my blog; both include my own observations along with research citations. Since they are thoughtful, I consider them valid data. When I was young all owned cats were indoor/outdoor and there were many more birds around. Bird decline is due to other factors IMO, mainly environmental.
    I’m glad to see the DC cat count, and also surprised by the bobcat! I grew up in and around DC, and I sure wish I’d seen a bobcat there. Although now I live in bobcat country and I’ve still never seen one in the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Two of the things you mentioned still blow my mind:

      1) That a significant number of influential people and policy-makers insist it’s cats, not human activity and environmental destruction, driving the downtrend in bird populations.

      2) That such shoddy, slapped-together, agenda-driven nonsense is called “research,” treated as valid, and widely cited in the media. It shows how scientifically illiterate many journalists are, and I know that firsthand because I’ve worked in newsrooms and I’ve seen colleagues do nothing more than skim abstracts for stories. They don’t even bother reading the studies, let alone questioning methodology or data.

      If a graduate student in any decent program tried to pass off those bird studies as genuine research, that student would be failed and probably laughed out of the classroom, and yet those studies are guiding public policy when it comes to dealing with “problematic” (oh how I hate that word) cat populations.

      The absolute least our elected leaders can do, if they’re considering taking animal life, is make sure they’re making informed decisions.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yesterday the WaPo covered the new extinction list on their website. A number of birds like the Ivory billed woodpecker and several Hawaiian species are listed, and promptly the comment thread lit up with anti-cat messages. One poster quoted an
        article by Nature that blames cats for falling bird numbers. Another quoted an outrageous number of 24 billion birds killed yearly by cats in the USA alone. The number of birds world wide ranges from 50 to over 400 billion, which makes the quoted number utter nonsense. A poster claimed it was in fact 2.4 billions birds killed by cats.
        These numbers seem vastly inflated, but dodgy stats like that take on a life of their own, unfortunately.

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      2. If you look at the authors, almost all of those studies were co-authored by Peter Mara, cat-hater extraordinaire, and several of them were co-authored by Nico Dauphine, who was later convicted of poisoning street cats. These are not credible people, their methods are embarrassing, and their “research” is propaganda. Yet it’s cited as fact in the press and politicians make policy while “informed” by those studies.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Felizitas, it’s called, Catwoods; Stories and Studies of Our Feline Companions, Volume 1. It’s a mix of the history of cats in our home and experience, and research. It’s available on Amazon and at Borgo Publishing. And thank you for your interest!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I probably shouldn’t be shocked by the bobcat hanging out in the nation’s capitol, but I am! I am also pleasantly surprised by the data! Of the cats, 98% are being cared for in some way by humans. That’s wonderful news!
    I’ve always thought the old numbers were crazy. If I were given a survey questionnaire about my kitty’s kills, he would be the baddest serial murderer ever! Not some wimpy innocent pushover, I’d have him stalking and killing all species of birds, even and especially bald eagles and horned owls. They would shiver at the twitching of his whiskers!

    Liked by 2 people

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