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Why Keep Your Cat Inside? A Mountain Lion Might Eat Him

The big cats are being seen more in urban areas, and evidence suggests they've been eating pets.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 1st 2016


Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t think big cats are cool? I have always loved big cats. In fact, big cats are the reason why I’m a vet. When I was younger, I wanted to be one of those guys that you see on the Discovery Channel driving around in the African bush tracking and studying big cats. A mentor told me that the best way to do that would be to go to veterinary school, so I did.

During the first year of vet school I leapt at the opportunity to join a lion researcher in Botswana for three months during my first summer break (although it was winter in Botswana). That trip was by far the most incredible of my life. We spent our days driving in the wilds of the Moremi Game Reserve, tracking lions and seeing every other African animal you can imagine on a regular basis. In the evening we enjoyed gin and tonics, and by night we cowered in our tents, afraid to go to the bathroom because there could be lions or leopards in the camp. It was amazing.

However, during the trip I also learned a bit about the expatriate lifestyle, and I came to the conclusion that it was not for me. Fortunately, small cats also are cool, so I made a career of working with them (and dogs).

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Africa isn’t the only place on earth with big cats. In the United States, we have our own big cats: mountain lions. I am happy to report that these magnificent creatures are thriving in our country. However, a recent article published by the San Francisco Chronicle caused me some concern. It seems that mountain lions may often be predators of their smaller cousins, pet cats.

The article detailed a study performed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The stomach contents of 83 mountain lions that had been killed under special depredation permits were evaluated to identify what the big cats had been eating. Of the lions with identifiable stomach contents, “52 percent were found to have eaten cats, dogs, or other domestic animals.”

When I was camping in the Amazon rainforest several years ago, it was my turn to head into the jungle to do my business after my morning cup of coffee. The guide wanted to scare me so he warned me to be careful — he said that jaguars often kill and eat people as they relieve themselves. I replied that I would be honored to die in such a respectable fashion. Since I was unfazed, the guide tried again. He told me to look out for fer-de-lance snakes, who, he claimed, liked to bite people’s private parts.

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Angry mountain lion by Shutterstock

The point of that story is that although I personally would be fine with dying in the jaws of a big cat, I can’t imagine that many people would like to think of their pet leaving this world in such a fashion.

And this is not merely a theoretical problem that needs to concern only those people who live in the woods. Mountain lions are being seen ever more commonly in cities. In fact, the cats have recently been in the news for their antics in Los Angeles, and I don’t mean some rural area of LA County. Mountain lion sightings are common in the city of Los Angeles itself — and cities don’t get much bigger than that.

One thing about the Department of Fish and Wildlife study did catch my eye, and it gives me hope that cat death due to mountain lion predation might not be as common as the study implies. Mountain lions are protected in California, and they can be killed only under special depredation permits. My guess is that the permits are issued only for “problem” mountain lions. Such lions probably would have been labeled as problem cats because of their failure to do something that is highly instinctive to most mountain lions: avoid humans.

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Mountain lion in the sun by Shutterstock

A mountain lion that has lost its fear of humans would be more likely to lurk in yards, cause fear and commotion in communities, and, I imagine, eat pet cats. There is a chance that sampling bias strongly affected the study, and that most mountain lions roaming the Earth do not regularly consume pets. I’m guessing that mountain lions that stay in the woods and stick to deer for their sustenance aren’t often being “depredated.”

Nonetheless, if you live in an area where mountain lions might exist, which now seems to be just about everywhere except for downtown Manhattan and the San Francisco Financial District, you should be aware of this possible threat to your pet cats.

Possible mountain lion predation now joins the already very long list of reasons why I recommend that cats be kept indoors. Being killed by one would be an honorable way for me to check out of this life, but let’s keep our cats safe.

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