By Elizabeth A. Gow, Joseph B. Burant, Alex O. Sutton, Nikole E. Freeman, Elora Grahame, Matthew Fuirst, Marjorie Sorensen, Samantha M. Knight, Hannah E. Clyde, Nathaniel J. Quarrell, Alana A. E. Wilcox, Roxan Chicalo, Stephen G. Van Drunen and David S. Shiffman.
The popular press oversimplified and presented unbalanced coverage of issues around domestic cats (Felis catus) that are allowed to roam freely, suggesting members of the public may only be getting soundbites of information surrounding issues related to free-roaming cats. Cats are one of the most popular pets worldwide, providing companionship for millions of people around the world. But with their excellent hunting skills, free-roaming cats can have devastating effects on the environment, killing billions to trillions of wild animals worldwide each year. Issues surrounding free-roaming cats are complex and there are many different viewpoints on their societal impacts, and the most effective ways to manage them. These often complex and dynamic discussions are covered by the popular press (e.g., newspapers and online media sources), but some issues may receive more coverage than others, or may be framed by the media to present some issues in specific ways to promote readership or shape public opinion.
We conducted a media content analysis to assess if issues surrounding free-roaming cats, including environmental impacts (e.g. cats killing wild animals or spreading disease), threats to cat health, and management strategies were presented by the media. Non-government organizations with a focus on cat welfare, and politicians were commonly interviewed by journalists, while subject experts such as scientists and social scientists, and veterinarians were rarely interviewed. About a third of articles mentioned that cats hunt or kill birds and mammals, but only a small portion of articles mentioned that cats also regularly hunt reptiles and amphibians. The popular press mainly reported on only two free-roaming cat management strategies, euthanasia and trap-neuter-release (TNR), which are both controversial practices.
By mainly presenting the perspective of groups interested in cat health or rights, limiting coverage on the impact cats have on wildlife, and focusing on TNR or lethal management strategies, the popular press oversimplified and provided unbalanced coverage of issues surrounding free-roaming cats. This limits critical viewpoints and discussions on the diversity of options available to control free-roaming cat populations, as well as underemphasizes the negative impacts that cats have on the environment and wild animals.