“I don’t quite understand why cat owners so routinely ignore D.C. Code § 8-1808”

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Photo by PoPville flickr user Peter Livadas

“Dear PoPville,

I see that sometimes people pose difficult questions and I have one that goes like this:

Four or five cats routinely visit my back yard and one is using my planters as litter boxes. Friends have pointed out that cats are better than rats, and I must agree.

Nevertheless, I don’t quite understand why cat owners so routinely ignore
D.C. Code § 8-1808, which prohibits animals from roaming “at large.”

Am I wrong about the code? Are cat owners unaware of this regulation? Perhaps your readers have thoughts on this.”

98 Comment

  • They’re probably feral.

  • Are you sure they aren’t feral cats?

    We have a group in our alley.

  • Probably because they do not have owners? We have a bunch of alley cats and a neighborhood lady comes through every night to feed them. They hang out in my yard sometimes, but they aren’t owned by me or anyone on the street. If there are 4-5 cats I’d say they are probably strays.

  • Sounds like you have a feral cat colony!

  • We have this same problem, and it is beyond gross. The cats that visit our yard are definitely a mix of actual strays and well-fed house cats left to roam wherever they choose. They poop and vomit all over the grass and I’ve spent the better part of the winter trying to devise strategies to keep them out. Beyond getting a completely closed fence, which I don’t necessarily want for both cost and design/neighborly reasons, I’m not sure what to do except maybe invite my friends’ dogs to come over and pee in our yard. (And for real, any animal-experts out there, would that even work?? Because I would do it.)

    • Wait — I’m confused. Did someone actually read the DC Code?

      • I did not. I’m just reporting that I also have this problem–and that the cats in my yard are both stray/feral and house cats on the loose. I don’t really care about the code (doesn’t seem like enforcement would be or should be high on DC’s list of priorities) but I’m more interested in crowdsourcing ideas for limiting the impact these cats have on my ability to use and enjoy my yard.

        • My dog pees in my back yard and it doesn’t bother my local feral colony in the least. They simply wait until the dog has gone back inside to come into the yard. However, feeding the cats in my yard does seem to solve the problem of THEM peeing in my yard.

    • A totally enclosed fence won’t help. We have two neighbors who routinely let their cats out to join the 2 feral cats. They were deterred for about 5 minutes once we put up the solid fence. They went under it where there were gaps. We closed those with boards and bricks as did our next door neighbor. They now walk along the top of the 6th foot fences and jump down. We have also tried concentrated orange oil which is supposed to deter them and it has done nothing. The worst offenders are the neighbors’ cats not the feral ones as evidenced by the cat food vomit that is now appearing daily on my parking slab. This is particularly frustrating because I have turned the by-city- standards-large backyard into an urban farm and they dig up the beds and use them as litter boxes.

      • This is unsurprising yet also very frustrating. Are there any weird noisemaker things that only cats can hear? (I’m being totally serious). The garden is definitely something I’m worried about–we have planted lots of flowers and have plans for a vegetable garden. A vet friend told me one option would be dumping a bunch of playground sand in an area that I wasn’t going to use–they’d use that instead of the grass at least, but I’d still have to clean it. Can’t decide if that’s preferable.

      • For the urban farmers, maybe you can enclose the beds with chicken wire that can be modified as the plants grow and to allow you access to tend to the beds? Kind of a PITA, but that kind of barricade is the only thing I can think of to keep the cats out. And it may have the added bonus of keeping out other critters, like raccoons.

      • Growing up (in suburban MN), my parents let our cat roam free in the yard, which meant he’d wander into neighbor yards pretty often too. One neighbor hated it, but another who was a gardener actually appreciated that our cat kept vermin away. If a pile of sand will deter them from your garden but help keep pests out, that may be a good solution for you.

    • Not saying that it is the nice way to do it (mind you, I own two cats myself), but my mom used to use vinegar and water in a water gun and spray when neighborhood cats were spotted in our backyard wreaking havoc. In my experience, cats will avoid areas with vinegar-y smells.

    • Trying marking your own territory by peeing in your yard yourself. Seriously. Eat a large steak and drink some beer, and in the dead of night, go and spread your carnivore scent around the perimeter. It’s a cheap and easy first thing to try. (Or if you are a lady person and ill-equipped for territorial peeing, enlist a man to do it.)

    • We have maybe five or six feral cats that live in our alley. I see them in my neighbor’s yard all the time, but never in mine. I have two dogs who are quite incensed by even seeing them through the fence. I’m not sure if it’s the scent of the dogs that keeps them away, or the fact that when my dogs see them they go ballistic and the cats are smart enough to know it’s not worth the risk. Not sure if inviting a dog over once or twice would be enough to keep them away, but maybe if you did it regularly they might start avoiding your yard.

    • A motion-activated sprinkler would do the trick!

    • My brother-in-law got a motion detector attached to a sprinkler water jet. These are made for deer deterence, but I’m sure they would also work for cats. I like animals, but it’s funny as [email protected] to see a deer do a backflip when he saunters into the yard in the dead of night and then gets the hose turned on him!

    • It’s so gross. I don’t know of another animal that spends such a large part of its life vomiting.

  • If they don’t have a collar they are probably either strays or feral cats. The strays may even appear to be fat house cats but probably just have a nice neighbor feeding them. We used to live on Gales St NE and had a stray cat sleep on our front porch every day. He liked our deck furniture and sun spots. We started leaving him water and food and gave him flea medicine (because who wants fleas on their patio furniture). We kept him safe-ish but he was most definitely a street cat.

    I have a lot of cat owner friends and can’t think of any who would let their pet roam free. The chance of being hit by a car or attacked by a dog or feral cat is to real.

    Also, I am not sure most people know the DC code inside and out so many probably don’t know.

  • Oh, hello! A question just for me, how nice.
    People let their pet cats out to roam because most cats are less domesticated than most dogs, and can be profoundly unhappy indoors.
    I had an indoor-outdoor cat for a long time in DC. (His death last year was unrelated to his love of the outdoors.) When I tried to keep him inside, he protested by peeing on furniture. His anxiety yowl was enough to drive anyone insane (the neighbors commented) and he never got tired of it. His whole personality changed. I had him on meds for a while, but he didn’t tolerate them well. I tried leaving a window cracked in all weather so that he could smell the fresh air, but that resulted in ruined window screens. The cat pheromone products did nothing. Not being allowed outdoors made him so upset that he developed FLUTD, which was an expensive little disorder to have to treat several times a year. So yeah, I let him out. It was best for him. And us.
    New Baby Kitty (10+ pounds now and still growing, if anyone is interested) is desperate to go out, but I haven’t let him. That means opening every door the barest crack needed for me to slip through, while keeping a bag or something at floor level. It means closing him in a bathroom when I take out the trash. And it means chasing him down and dragging him out from under a car on average once a day. I’m hoping he’ll settle down eventually. He’s not happy about being cooped up, but at least he doesn’t take it out on us by peeing on our beds. Yet.

    • Oh god, this is why we don’t have pets and never will. I will never know how my parents had kids, 3 cats, and a dog!!

      • Your parents probably didn’t live in a dense urban environment.
        I’d never let a cat outside in DC. Then again, I’m probably never going to get a pet because the maintenance involved is A LOT and the norms surrounding pet ownership has become enormously expensive over the last two decades. Not for me.

        • They didn’t and yes all our pets were indoor/outdoor with a huge yard to roam, but still I think about all the vet appts, food, etc they paid for and woah! I am totally with you–cannot believe what my friends have spent on their dogs and cats.

          • If I think about how much I spend on my dogs’ food, treats, toys, vet appointments, etc etc etc it’s depressing….so I just don’t think about it.

          • Honestly, I love pets. Had tons of dogs and cats growing up. But if a vet told me that I would need to pay $3K for a surgery to save my cat’s life, I’d have no qualms with putting that cat down. I have multiple friends who have gone into 5-figure debts or tapped retirement funds to pay for their cats’ and dogs’ health issues. The culture around pet ownership today – especially urban pet ownership – is absolutely insane and defies common sense. A cat is not supposed to live more than 15 years.

          • Yeah, I know a dog that had THREE knee surgeries. I mean WTF! We were lucky (or times were different?) and our pets never had any super expensive issues. One of our cats lived until she was like 23…it was crazy!

          • Agreed that the pet ownership culture is out of control. Very little attention paid to what is best for the animal. Chemo for cats? Seriously now.
            But it’s totally acceptable to use any demeaning language about children that might earn a “LOL” from a stranger on the internet. I don’t get it.

          • My friend dachshund’s has undergone 2 backs surgeries within 16 months at the cost of $7K per surgery. The second surgery was required to fix errors with the first surgery. That’s in addition to the dog’s post-surgery physical therapy sessions at $150/session four days per week for a few months. Absolutely insane.
            Obviously, in these types of cases of dependency the pet is a crutch for some other issue. Like I said, having a pet isn’t for me. I enjoy my freedom, a comfortable financial cushion, and not having my place smell like animals.

          • just because “culture norms” around animals have changed does not mean you can’t own an animal. while a loud minority might protest putting down a 14 year old dog with hip and back problems, most reasonable people still understand it is in the best interests of the animal and the exact opposite of a selfish act.

    • wdc, I’ve heard these exact things from all other owners of indoor-outdoor cats. The cats absolutely cannot tolerate being kept inside. Makes me so grateful that my cat has zero interest in going outside.

      • Right. My cat has made it to the porch precisely once in the seven years we’ve had her. And that didn’t last – next vehicle down the street sent her careening inside to a safe spot under a bed.

      • I had one of those cats once. Perfectly content to stay a windowpane away from the world. It was lovely. She was much more civilized/ genteel than any of my boy cats. I’m thinking that New Baby Kitty’s successor (15+ years from now inshallah) will be a girl. I want to see if this mania for getting outside is a girl/boy thing.

        • From anecdotal evidence it may be more of a boy cat thing. But one of the most insistent outdoor cats I’ve known was a girl; she was also one of the biggest scrappers – she’d get into fights with raccoons! Her owner (my friend) spent a lot of money on vet bills for her wounds and abscesses (blegh).

        • I had a boy cat growing up and he wasn’t too interested in going outside (there were a few times he snuck out and I had to run around looking for a black cat in the dark, but no yowling). However, he frequently peed outside his litter box (a back hallway he liked, around the litter box, a few times on my parents’ suitcases after they came back from a long trip, etc) and had a pee war on the rugs once we got a dog. I’ve since had two female cats that would rather choke than go outside the box. One of them did have an “accident” once, but it was because I accidentally closed her in the bathroom for 8 hours so she gets a pass. Even still she considerately used the bathtub (not the rug, and easier to clean) so the only casualty was a roll of toilet paper.
          .
          So, anecdotal evidence at best, but another point for girls not having a similar problem. One of the cats was terrified of outdoors, the other likes it but is fine just looking out a window.

        • My 2 boy cats are totally happy on the couch. One was a runner for a while but he quickly grew out of it. Not sure if that skews the data!

          • My boys are also find indoors. Had a roommate with a girl cat who would spray and howl all night when not let outdoors. Spaying her eliminated the problem. Desire to go outside is most strong in pets that haven’t been fixed and smell potential mates outside. Please get your pets fixed. There are enough stray cats without someone’s unfixed indoor-outdoor cat knocking up every feral girl in the neighborhood.

    • +1
      My cat, who I adopted from the streets, would torture me relentlessly if I did not let her out for a few hours every day. I would prefer for her to do her business in my yard, never cross a street, etc. but I cannot control that. Letting her outside is not an easy choice – I would prefer to protect her and keep her safe but she, and I, would be miserable. I imagine that I would have to take her to a shelter if the only choice were to keep her indoors 24/7. . I don’t know of an effective way to keep them from from ruining your yard. My cat easily maneuvers 6 foot fences. She is afraid of dogs and won’t go into a neighbor’s yard when a dog is present (but every so often when they are not). I wish I had a suggestion but I think most cats and dogs are not capable of being inside all the time, so this will likely be an ongoing challenge.

    • I hope that keeping the little guy inside works for you. If, you decide to relent, I found that it was easy to get both my cats (owned at different times) used to a leash and harness. After a while, if I picked up the leash and harness, he would go to the back door and get into a position to make it easy for me to put it on. After circling the tree, and checking out the catnip, he would find a chair or grass, make himself comfortable watching the birds and squirrels, while I read the newspaper. I would also clip off some of the catnip and bring inside for him to roll on on the carpet or nibble on the leaves. The few times he got out the door before I got the harness on, he would race around for about a minute and then come back for me to put the harness on and sit with him.

    • Maybe get a companion kitty? My two rescues are perfectly content to stay inside.

  • Last summer, the feral cat population in my alley went down and rat population went up. I’d rather see a cat in my herb garden than a rat (as they were last summer).

  • You should just tell the cats next time they’re in your yard that they’re breaking D.C. Code § 8-1808 which prohibits animals from roaming “at large” and next time you see them there you’ll be calling MPD. I’m sure that will work.

  • Tell your neighbors to stop feeding the strays.
    That said, be prepared for the invasion of rats if the cats go away.

  • This sounds like a CATastrophe.

  • Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the planters?!!?

  • Check out the WHS trap and release program. Feral cats are fix and put back in the alley where they were found. Their ear is clipped. Residents are encorsged to then care for them. I don’t think there is any DC code barring such activity.

  • I would support a law that *requires* cat owners to have their pets roam at large. We gotta do something about the rats. We gotta do something about the rats and we have confined our entire feline population of rat-killing machines by law. Absolute madness. We gotta do something about the rats and then once they’re extinct in DC we can revise indoor-outdoor cat laws.

    • My indoor-outdoor cat brought me the occasional mouse, but he never tangled with a DC alley rat. And he was a massive cat, almost 20 pounds.
      I propose that the DC government fund an initiative to breed bigger, meaner cats. They can be sterile, and maybe we can stick a 5-year self-destruct mechanism in their genes somewhere.
      That, or a highly trained and disciplined terrier corps.

    • I’m not sure I heard you say that we gotta do something about the rats?

    • My greyhound caught/killed a rat while on a (leashed) walk. Clearly, the answer is, adopt more greyhounds, have fewer rats.

      Before anyone says anything, we have a cat. She could care less about the cat. She only wants rats.

    • I actually don’t think cats can deter the rats. Rats will stand up to a cat and cats are afraid of them. I’ve been told that if you want to get rid of rats, get a terrier. I’ve never actually tried this though.

      • a full grown city rat will defeat all cats and most dogs. And they run with backup.

      • Rats generally have an innate aversion to cat urine. However, when they get infected by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii they lose that aversion, and can actually become attracted to it. This is apparently because the parasite can only reproduce in cats, so it wants the rat to be eaten by a cat. Parasites are really amazing.

    • The DC rats I’ve seen will kick a cat’s ass and take it’s lunch money. Feral terriers are the way to go.

    • In my old place in Columbia Heights we used to have a colony of feral cats in our alley that basically were in detente with the rats. DC rats are bad ass.

  • At least they aren’t tying up their cat to a fence as they go grocery shopping.

  • What’s the law about bringing leashed dogs into coffee shops?
    This happens often among the jeunesse-doree…. and my sense is it is a health violation.
    Can one of you advocates clarify?

    • It’s a health code violation if food or beverage is served. This also includes outdoor patios and terraces. Pets are supposed to be separated from areas where food is served. There was a lengthy thread on this last year, as the cafe on 17th near U Street received a health code violation for allowing dogs on their outdoor patio.
      Pretty contentious thread, as everyone obviously claimed that their pooch was the best behaved dog in the District and thus should be exempted from the rules.

      • Thanks. Just wanted to know if my sense was generally on target. (The rule against talking in the library is also much challenged now but that can be another thread.)

    • While I cannot clarify, I can added that I too am SICK of people bringing their dogs into restaurants and coffee shops. Unless it is a service animal, it doesn’t belong there. And sorry, your “therapy” dog you have because you have anxiety does not count as a service animal. I was at a pizza restaurant in Georgetown last week and a young couple with a dog were sat next to me. This dog was not a service animal. I left before I could order.

      • I know, it’s sort of a sick joke. It’s amazing how many people suddenly suffer from anxiety in order to get their dog around the rules. Unless you’re a veteran suffering from PTSD, the whole charade of emotional support animals is a con game. I know of numerous pet owners in the District abusing the designation. Any therapist can sign the paperwork.

        • i don’t like dogs in restaurants, but i would prefer to sit next to a quiet dog than some annoying crying kid in a restaurant any day of the week.

  • If you would like a responsible solution for your problem or answers to your questions about code enforcement, please reach out me. I run the Community Cat program for the Washington Humane Society.

  • Posts like these make me wonder why everybody thinks having a house in the city is better than a large condo or coop. You don’t have to deal with these issues when you are up a few stories in a multi-family building.

    • I’d definitely rather have stray cats (and raccoons, and even rats) than have neighbors stomping around upstairs, or playing loud music downstairs, or smoking weed on a balcony under my window, or preventing ME from doing any of those things.

  • I won’t let my cat out because I could never forgive myself if he got run over. Having said that, I love that there are outdoor cats in my neighborhood. They keep the alley virtually rat-free.

  • Just FYI, all of these cats have collars. They are not feral.

  • I have strong and unpopular opinions about this. Let me share them.

    Feral cats are vermin. Food left out for them is also enjoyed by other vermin, such as rats and raccoons.

    Pet cats that will not stay indoors should not be forced to stay indoors. They are also not fit to live in an urban environment. Send them to a lovely home with lots of land. This is true of some dogs as well.

    All cats hunt, even if they’re well-fed. I have no idea what their rat abatement rate is, but I can tell you that they also hunt songbirds and other animals that we’d like to have around.

    TNR (trap, neuter, release) has not been shown to reduce feral cat population. You’re just releasing more vermin onto the streets that will die of disease (after they’ve spread it to other cats) or of being hit by a car or mauled by another animal or some other not very nice way. How anyone can think that TNR is humane is beyond me.

    • “I have strong and unpopular opinions about this. Let me share them.”
      .
      I’m totally stealing this abrupt line for small talk at parties with strangers, lol

  • DC has a large feral cat population. These are basically wild animals. Take them as you will.

    Again a big reason DC has a lower rat population, take away the feral cats, and suddenly we have way too many rats. I prefer the feral cats, as do most in DC.

    Telling the difference between a feral and domestic cat is almost impossible. They look exactly alike.

    • Lower rat population than….. London, 1665?

    • It’s really awful for the ecosystem to let cats roam. If you are doing this, please at least make sure your cat is spayed/neutered and that it wears a bell to alert birds (though cats can figure out to move so the bell doesn’t ring, so that’s not a real solution). Don’t kid yourself that your cat keeps rats in check, DC rats are huge and cats would never tangle with them. The cats are taking down mice, baby squirrels, and a huge swath of America’s songbirds.

  • With all that being said, keep your domestic cats indoors. Seriously it’s for their own health, and yours. Indoor cats, less likelihood of infectious diseases.

  • We spread mothballs in our planters and wherever else the cats hang out. We only have to put them out about once a year. I don’t know if they are poisonous, but the cats never get close enough to eat them. Occasionally, our yard smells funky after a rain though.

  • Gonna go out on a limb here and guess that DC doesn’t have an Animal Control department that does a trap-spay/neuter-release program?

    They probably want stray cats to fight off the massive rat problem. Can we talk about how much that sucks?

    • Mothvalls are absolutely poisonous and hazardous to human and animal health. I do not understand why people in DC do this. Someone in my neighborhood does this and half the block smells of mothballs constantly. They cause cancer, cataracts, and the smell that you’re noticing when they degrade is the insecticide (poison) that you are inhaling into your lungs. Basically what you’re smelling in the rain is the insecticide leeching into the soil. I hope you’re not eating anything out of those planters. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothball

      http://npic.orst.edu/ingred/ptype/mothball/health.html

    • -1 DC does have an active TNR program through the Washington Humane Society, which also has the Animal Control contract. Animal Control Officers also do TNR for cats across DC. 🙂 TNR is the way to have less cats (and less kittens dying) over time. Dept of Health is responsible for rats and rat-related phone calls within DC.

  • Ally

    Brief but necessary soap boxing: Outdoor cats are MUCH more likely to get FIV and other diseases, so if you’re a cat owner, try to keep them indoors for their own health. I adopted two, sweet FIV-positive cats from the humane society and they all have major health issues because they are more prone to getting cancer, infections, etc.. Also, outdoor cats destroy the songbird population. My boy cat gets to go outside, but only in the backyard supervised, so there’s some middle ground if you have a fenced in back yard (though, word of warning, my boy cat can jump the 8-foot fence; so keep a watchful eye on them). Okay, soapbox over. Cats rule. <3

  • What is D.C. Code § 8-1808? Not a helpful/communicative post–if that is how this issue is being approached, communications-wise, can understand why there is little progress.

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