How do I stop my cat from trying to kill me?
October 27, 2010 2:00 AM   Subscribe

My cat loves to bring animals into the house. Fine, I know it's an instinct, but just today she brought in a snake that I'm pretty sure is highly poisonous. How do we stop her from doing this, or at least, protect ourselves from bad consequences?

We have two cats who go in and out at will during the day (they are inside at night). Making them into non-outdoor cats is not really an option at this point -- my partner is morally opposed to it, and having grown up as outdoor cats I really don't think they will take well to training them otherwise.

We live in Australia, land of many poisonous creatures. One of the cats loves to give us "gifts" of animals -- live ones. So far it's been lizards, which is merely annoying (in terms of finding lizards lurking behind sofas and the like), but today she brought in what we are almost positive is a juvenile brown snake -- very poisonous, very scary.

We aren't sure what to do at this point. I'm looking for advice on any or all of the following:

1. Anybody know how to train cats not to bring in "presents" for their owners? This thread posed a similar problem but the consensus seemed to be that cats do this, and it's not that bad -- but for obvious reasons I hope it is clear why I would not want poisonous snakes (rather than mice or squirrels) hanging around the house. So far we are responding quickly by removing the animals they bring in, saying "no", and grabbing the cats by the scruff of the neck (not meanly, but firmly, the same way a mother cat would). Other suggestions welcome.

2. Ideally, I would like the cats to just stay away from snakes entirely, because I don't want them to get bitten either. Ideas for that? On the plus side, I think hunting anything other than a juvenile is beyond them, but juveniles are lethal enough..

3. Alternatively, if we could figure out how to get rid of snakes from our yard, that would be great too. Neither myself or my partner are from Australia so there could be things that seem obvious to Australians that we're not doing. We are trying to clear brush and grass, but it's a very big yard with rocks and hills and a creek, so doing that over the entirety of the yard is unrealistic.

4. Other thoughts? Including technical solutions of whatever sort? I thought of tying bells around their necks, but I think snakes are deaf so I don't know that that would be very helpful...
posted by forza to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I'll add that there is no problem with the current snake. We managed to take care of it; I'm asking about how to prevent this from happening in future.
posted by forza at 2:01 AM on October 27, 2010

Could you create some kind of catchment box for the cat, such as a porch or something that requires you to let the cat into the house proper? Make it of perspex and and plenty of lights and you'll be able to see what is in there with the kitty before you let everything in.
posted by Solomon at 2:16 AM on October 27, 2010

You aren't going to train a cat.

Just keep the doors and windows closed (or screened) so they have to check with you before they bring their friends home.
posted by pracowity at 2:21 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you use a cat flap? I remember reading about a guy a while ago who attached a webcam to his cap flap which used image processing to figure out if the cat was carrying anything. If it was, the cat flap would not unlock. Sorry I don't have more details but if you're into that sort of hacking stuff you could look up the story (might even be on MeFi somewhere).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:07 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. We might end up just having to make them check with us before coming in, because it's better than doing nothing. The reason we haven't done that yet is: (a) it's really annoying to have to get up and let them in all the time; and (b) especially in the heat of the Australian summer, I don't really relish the thought of making the kittens stay outside waiting to be let in for what might be a while if we're in another part of the house or don't notice them or whatever. We have shade and would put out water, but it still can get very very hot.

As I said, we'll do that if we have to (better than getting killed by poisonous snakes) but I'm interested in other alternatives if there are any.
posted by forza at 3:40 AM on October 27, 2010

I think EndsOfInvention is talking about Flo Control which used to be up at Quantum Picture, but it's unfortunately no longer online, but there's a reference with a couple pictures here. The system as I recall it had the cat enter a short tunnel in front of an electrically locked cat door. The tunnel had a cam take a profile picture of the cat. Software processing on the picture then compared it to a reference picture to see if the cat had anything in it's mouth, and only unlocked the door if the cat wasn't carrying anything. It was pretty sophisticated and really beyond the capabilities of most people to implement, IIRC. I don't know if there's anything similar available commercially but I suspect not, since the key component was the image processing/comparison aspect.

I don't think all snakes are deaf. I'd try bells, although some cats apparently learn how to keep the bells quiet for hunting anyway. Checking the cats before letting them in is probably your best bet, at least for keeping you safe. Maybe have some kind of shelter along with water available outside, for when it's hot. Beyond that, I'm not sure how much you can do to keep the cats safe if they're going to be outside. Sadly, an interest in brown snakes might be a self-correcting problem.
posted by 6550 at 4:32 AM on October 27, 2010

We also have the identical problem, we're in Australia and so far they only bring home lizards. As soon as it becomes snakes, we will have 2 indoor cats. I would have 2 grumpy cats than two dead ones, or worse, a dead me. My neighbor said her cat bought in snakes so I know they're around. Sorry, I wish I had another answer. I will be watching with interest. (maybe keep them inside for summer?)
posted by Jubey at 4:49 AM on October 27, 2010

I used to be in charge of letting my partner's cat in at night (yeah, I am not entirely sure how that became my duty, either). After a number of "amusing in retrospect" incidents, I realized that she would meow to get in rather than scratch at the door -- if she could. At that point, I stopped letting her in unless she meowed, and that gave her present a chance to escape. Dead presents could be removed as she was trying to enter. Not an ideal situation at 4am, but better than chasing mice and cockroaches around the apartment
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:48 AM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

We have the same problem with our cat. So far she has brought in - all living - birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, and a dragonfly. I too will be watching this thread with interest. I live in the US and poisonous animals are not such a problem in this region so we just rescue and release what we have found. For what it's worth, our cat is 10 years old and this behavior has never abated. Right now she is sitting on the back of my chair looking sweet as can be when she is actually the bane of the backyard.
posted by eleslie at 6:11 AM on October 27, 2010

There's this slightly ridiculous looking option.
posted by chairface at 6:41 AM on October 27, 2010

I strongly suggest you try to transition your cat to being an indoor only animal, moral opposition to it's potential boredom ought to be weighed against potential dangers to the household (and the cat for that matter) as well as the fact that your animal is wreaking havoc on the local ecosystems.

That being said if you feel like you need to keep your sweet little invasive species's freedom of movement, then I would suggest you do as the others suggested and make it check in before it can come back in the house.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:44 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know this is a highly-charged issue, but the easiest and most efficient answer to your question is "make it an indoor-only cat." In fact, this is why the concept of "indoor-only cat" exists in the first place, although for most of the world it's because of roaming dogs and street traffic.
posted by ErikaB at 7:02 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Only half a solution here, but anyway:

Our cat is also in the gift giving business. She will come in at weird hours and utter a distinct meow - probably signalling her "kittens" (us) that she has prey. Now here is teh fun part: As soon as she hears my wife or me saying "AHEM!" - or any other bad-kitty-sound - she instantly runs out the door at great speed. This has been acheived by ALWAYS confiscating any and all gifts brought into the house, since it seems that the kick for the cat is in showing off, she definitely wants to eat the prey herself.
However: She doesn't seem to learn that prey is not ok in the house. Or rather, she knows, but only when actively reminded.
No snakes here, though.

Oh, I've been in the service of this cat for 5 years. No change in sight.
posted by Thug at 7:07 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My parents live out in the country, and their cats kill snakes all the time. Mother cats with kittens will box with poisonous snakes (moccasins, copperheads, cotton mouths). Cats who live outside learn to fight and kill snakes, it's a fact of life. The only way to keep a cat who knows how to hunt and kill a snake from hunting and killing a snake is to keep it inside.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:56 AM on October 27, 2010

I had been having the same issue with my cat; a few months ago, he brought home a very large (3 1/2') rat snake, and he was regularly depositing voles, mice, etc. in our entryway. So far, he had not brought back any songbirds -- only English sparrows, which I was happy to have him slay with abandon -- but I know cats do have a negative impact on native species in many places. I was also worried about my cat being injured or killed by a native predator -- or bringing one home by accident.

After speaking with my veterinarian friend about the issue, my partner and I decided to make our cat an indoor cat. My friend pointed out that many cases of hantavirus, bubonic plague, and other nasty diseases carried by rodents happen because a domestic cat has either transmitted the disease or exposed the owner to it by carrying a rodent into the house. She also pointed out that outdoor cats have a life expectancy of only ~2 years. Nature, red in tooth and claw, you know.

We've got a sunroom where our cat hangs out, plays, and is able to see, hear, and smell what's going on outside through the windows, which we leave a tiny bit open. The first few days of transitioning him to indoor life were no fun (LOTS of yowling), but animals are usually able to adapt to a new routine, and our cat is fine now.
posted by Spinneret at 8:00 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe your partner could be convinced that the moral positive of no longer allowing your pet to kill and/or capture wild animals for fun outweighs whatever negative might be perceived in keeping the cats indoors at all times. BobbyDigital was not kidding when he referred to house cats as an invasive species. I love cats and I love having them as pets, but pet cats around the world kill millions of wild songbirds every year and who knows how many other animals. They have no need to as they are well fed at home - they do this because that's what cats are wired to do when presented with little animals. And besides that, with the right kind of care and attention, an indoor cat can be a happy cat, even one that used to be able to go outside.

If transitioning the cat is at all an option, you may find this previous question helpful: How can I transition an outdoor cat to an indoor-only lifestyle?

Cats are usually good at adapting to environments that change around them when they see that there is no other option. If suddenly your cats find that they are unable to go outside, they will probably be weirded out simply because there has been a change (like our cats have been when we've moved to a different apartment) but eventually they learn to live in the environment that is available to them. According to that question I posted, it seems that toys, plants, and play time help a lot with the transition.

Hopefully this isn't seen as a derail. I just think you'd have more luck with this than somehow trying to get your cats to be more selective with what they bring home.
posted by wondermouse at 2:25 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I appreciate the multiple perspectives. I didn't want to get into the "make them indoor cats" discussion, because aside from anything else, my partner is the one at home with them during the day and he is just not willing to do that. For those worried about the bird population, rest assured that the birds here can easily take either of our cats in a fight, so they are mainly only affecting the local insects and reptiles.

It looks like checking them before they come inside (perhaps with some sort of catchment area, if we can figure out how to do that given the shape of our house) is the most feasible solution. I'll also look into those cat bibs and bells (which, even if all the snakes here are deaf, might at least save a few lizards - and maybe some snakes aren't). Although both my partner and I are fairly geeky / technical, the object-recognition software is probably beyond us (timewise, if nothing else) but I'll keep it in mind if I'm ever laid up -- perhaps recovering from snakebite, heh heh -- and suddenly have loads of time. :)

Thanks again.
posted by forza at 7:58 PM on October 27, 2010

The cat who currently lives in my house used to bring in live treats, mostly of the small rodent variety. Once I changed his method of entry from an opening he could easily walk through to one he had to jump through there have been no surprise mice. He's not a fierce hunter and has little interest in the mice once they're inside--in fact if you call his name or distract him when the mouse is in his mouth he will usually drop it, so maybe it is just his level of interest that makes him drop the prey while contemplating the jump.
posted by at 12:36 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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