Who Let the Dogs (and Cats) Out? Protecting Backyard Wildlife from Our Pets

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With development chewing away at the last wild places on the planet, many homeowners are taking on the additional role of “habitat owner” by creating spaces on their property for local wildlife. By planting berry trees for local birds, eliminating chemicals in the landscape and leaving patches of lawn to native plants, property owners welcome back wildlife that may have been displaced by the construction of their homes.

But some of these homeowners are doing more harm than good by inviting the local fauna into their pets’ favorite hunting ground. Researchers estimate that, each year, hundreds of millions of birds and billions of small mammals are killed by dogs and cats. Does this mean that wildlife lovers should give up their pets? Or that pet owners shouldn’t try to provide a hospitable place for wildlife? No. But before attempting to create a peaceable kingdom in a home with Fido or Mittens, keep these things in mind:

In a pet/wildlife encounter, the wildlife usually loses. Dogs and cats are curious and playful, and many of them are natural born hunters. Some will eat anything they can catch. Others will just “play” with their prey until it stops moving and can no longer entertain them. Domestic cats are considered primarily responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species since the 1600s.

Pet/wildlife encounters can hurt the pet as well as the wildlife. It can be heartbreaking to watch your family pet pulling young birds out of a nest or injuring baby rabbits or other small mammals. But many types of wildlife, from raccoons to raptors, can also cause serious injuries to pets. Always check your pet for animal bites and scratches if it has been in your yard unattended and keep rabies vaccinations up to date.

© Elizabeth Prager

Chasing wildlife can have its own dangers. A pet in pursuit of an animal may rush into traffic or run away from home. Even when pets are unsuccessful in catching the object of their chase, the potential prey has to expend significant energy in order to escape. This weakens animals to such an extent that other predators can easily kill them. Pregnant wildlife and newborn animals are particularly vulnerable.

Dogs and cats like to dig. Dogs dig for various reasons. Cats, on the other hand, see the world as one giant litter box. Digging may disturb animals that either live or lay their eggs underground.

Some pets will eat anything. Pets may eat food that is left out for birds or other wildlife, a practice that can lead to illness if the food has fermented or begun to rot. Pets can also get sick from eating living or dead animals and animal droppings.

The answer for cat owners is simple, but many won’t like it: keep your pet indoors. Although many people believe that putting a bell on a cat is a suitable means of protecting wildlife, studies disprove this theory. The Cat Indoors! Campaign of the American Bird Conservancy offers a pamphlet entitled “How to Make Your Outdoor Cat a Happy Indoor Cat” as well as information to help you educate your cat-loving neighbors.

For dogs, it helps to do your homework before selecting the breed. Hounds, terriers and members of the sporting breeds have strong predatory instincts and are likely to present a challenge to a wildlife-friendly yard. Toys and non-sporting breeds may be better choices. There are many excellent books and websites to help you research the characteristics of specific dog breeds. Some sources, such as What Dog: A Guide to Help New Owners Select the Right Breed for Their Lifestyle by Amanda O”Neill or the online Dog Breed Directory on the Animal Planet website also list how each breed gets along with other animals in a home. That may give you a good indication of how the dog will react to outdoor wildlife.

No matter what breed you choose, proper training is essential. Dogs should learn to obey basic commands such as “leave it” and “stay” and should never be left unattended around wildlife. Creating a habitat for wildlife is one of the easiest ways for homeowners to make a positive difference for the local environment. But when it comes to enjoying the birds and bees, protection from your own companion predators comes first.

BETSY FRANZ is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in nature, wildlife and the environment.