Collar Considerations: The Case for and Against Bells on Cats

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 12 min read 2 Comments

Collar Considerations: The Case for and Against Bells on Cats

Our feline 😺 fur babies are adorable, snoozy, and sometimes, well murderous.

When they aren't dozing in a sunbeam or whining for your attention, they're probably off somewhere hunting, or trying to hunt, whatever toy 🧸, bird 🐦, or rodent 🐿️ that catches their eye. With such keen eyesight, that's a lot of critters!

And, while it's fun to watch them stalk and stare, it's a lot less fun if your kitty is allowed outside and they come up to the door with a bloody mouse 🐁, mole, bird 🕊️, or other creature clamped in their jaws.

While this might be a somewhat funny story to share with friends and family, one thing you may not know is that, believe it or not, domesticated cats are one of the biggest threats to birds worldwide.

Countries have differing opinions on whether or not a kitty should be allowed outside. Here in the U.S., it’s generally frowned upon, but I still see cats in my neighborhood that have a place to go home to.

So, while I would recommend keeping your fur baby indoors for their safety, if you do have an indoor/outdoor kitty, this post is for you.

One possible solution to saving the wildlife around your home is a 🔔 bell, but there’s some debate over whether or not putting a bell on the collar of your feline friend is a good idea.

As usual, I’ve thrown in a great educational video📽️. This time by The American Bird Conservancy and their work with cat-mauled birds. This is a must-watch!

Let’s run down the arguments on both sides and see if we can get to the bottom of things.

Saved By the Bell: The Argument For Collar Bells

There are generally two main reasons why it may be a good idea to attach a bell to your fur baby's collar.

The first is connected to the scenario I already mentioned up above. Cat predation of wildlife.

Cat Wearing a Collar Bell Image by Toe Beans

Why Do Cats Like to Hunt Animals?

To put it simply, it's in their genes, it's part of their instincts, they're hard-wired to stalk and pounce, and often, kill.

Whether they're doing it for fun, for sustenance, or because they want to bring a squirmy little creature to you to teach you how to hunt, it's a fact of life for felines.

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Now, one could argue that if cat parents were aware of the dangers that domestic cats are exposed to while hunting outside, there wouldn’t be any need for bells as cats would simply be kept indoors.

Is it Safe for My Cat to Hunt?

No. As much as your cat is hard-wired to hunt, hunting is also a source of many risks.

  • Rodents and other prey animals can carry diseases, mites, bacteria and parasites, which can not only infect your fur baby but also be transmitted to you.

“Yersnia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, is commonly carried by small rodents such as ground squirrels, rats, mice and even rabbits…Keep in mind that outdoor cats are most at risk for being exposed to Yersnia, due to rodent hunting (another great reason to keep your cat indoors).” - Pet Health Network

  • You may end up with an indoor pest infestation. If your fur baby doesn't kill the creature, they can let it loose in your home, leading to all sorts of problems if you don't catch it yourself.

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  • Prey animals aren't defenseless, and some of them can fight back; you don't want your fur baby to get a nasty cut or bite! A short encounter with an animal that carries rabies could get your cat infected.
“…Rabies happens primarily in skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats. In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid.” - Johns Hopkins Medicine
  • Your cat might become prey! Many small domestic animals are increasingly at risk from predation.

“Many people assume that coyotes don't live in suburban or urban neighborhoods because they don't see them. But that assumption can be dangerous for your animal companions. Coyotes typically hunt small mammals such as mice, voles and rabbits. If given the opportunity, they will also make a meal of a cat, tame or feral.” - The Humane Society of The United States

Are Cats a Threat to Birds?

House cats kill over 2.4 billion birds in the United States alone each year and have very likely contributed to the extinction of over 60 different species.

“Head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Marra and other scientists, along with conservation organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy, warn that entire populations of bird and other wildlife species are declining or even being pushed toward extinction by domestic cats.” The National Wildlife Federation

Of course, it's not your fur baby's fault they're built that way. They're just doing what nature intended for them to do.

What does a bell have to do with this?

Well, a bell attached to your fur baby's collar is a source of a subtle noise. It might not be loud and jangly – and good, it shouldn't be – but it's enough that it tinkles when your cat runs to pounce.

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Just like your cat is hard-wired to hunt, prey animals are hard-wired to spook and run at the first sign of anything unusual, and the sound of a bell rapidly getting closer is very much one of those signals.

They're effective, too. Some studies have shown that bells reduce the successful hunts a cat embarks upon by about half, and there's no evidence to suggest that cats adapt to the sound and learn to hunt more slowly or muffle the bell before pouncing. It's a simple, easy way to save local wildlife.

Plus, the bell doesn't prevent your cat from the act of hunting; it just reduces their ability to successfully kill another small animal. They may be momentarily frustrated, but by the time they're home and back in your cozy lap, they'll have forgotten all about it.

Check Out This Educational Video by The American Bird Conservancy Work with Birds That Have Been Mauled By Cats

I mentioned two reasons, though, so what's the second?

Well, it's so you can hunt them!

More specifically, it's just an auditory cue that helps you know where your fur baby is wandering.

If they rush out between your legs when you're carrying in the groceries, or if they sneak away when you aren't looking on a supervised outing to the yard, the bell can help you find them and alert you to their presence (or absence).

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It can also help one cat locate another cat. In particular, if you have a multiple-cat household and one of the cats is very, shall we say, dominant, they might bully other cats and get into spats.

By sticking a bell on their collar, the warning goes out not just to prey animals, but to fellow felines. It can avoid conflicts and reduce surprise-aggression reactions.

Why Some People Oppose Bells for Cats And The Argument Against Them

Now let's look at things from the flip side. Some people object to putting bells on a cat's collar, and some vehemently reject the very idea.

It's not just about imposing on the dignity of their regal felines; they also have solid concerns, arguments, and even myths.

Putting a Collar Bell on a Cat Image by Toe Beans

Will a Bell in My Cat’s Collar Hurt My Cat’s Ears?

No, a bell on your cat’s collar will not injure their ears. While it's true that it would probably get annoying for us, the truth is, collar bells are generally quiet enough that cats aren't bothered by it.

Some cat parents argue that, with cat's sensitive hearing, having a bell ringing next to them all the time could hurt them.

According to the Office for Science and Society at McGill University, most cats won't even care.

“…A collar bell will produce sound at about 50-60 dB, but studies have shown cats to be unaffected by sounds under 80 dB. While some cats with anxiety may not react well to the bell’s sound, it’s likely that the majority of cats simply won’t care.”

Maybe the occasional anxious fur baby might get irritated by it – and some of the more irascible feral strays will rip their collars off altogether – but most cats don't seem to care one way or the other.

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Could Bells Put My Cat in Danger from Other Predators?

Another common argument is that the sound of the bell doesn't just alert prey: it alerts predators too.

This is a tough one, and given the absence of supporting studies in this field, there are opposing perspectives on this topic.

The first one is that while your cat's presence is being announced to the world, it's not just birds and mice that are being alerted, but foxes, coyotes, hawks, and other predators that would like a feline snack.

This argument can make sense for many pet parents. However, here are a few counter arguments that may also make sense.

First, some of those predators operate by sight, not by sound. A hawk isn't listening for the tinkling of a bell; it's watching for movement from a hundred feet up.

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Second, the sound of the bell is still minor. The usual noise of the outdoors can drown it out, and it's only even effective against birds and other prey animals some of the time. The chances of it attracting a coyote or something are likely pretty slim.

Third, of course, if you live in an area where predators abound and your cat may be in danger being outside, you shouldn't let them outside unsupervised anyway!

This argument only supports the one about not allowing your cat outdoors discussed in the first part of this post. Doing so, with or without a bell, is putting your fur baby at risk every time. Instead, you should keep them on a harness, in an enclosure, or even just inside in a sun room.

Do Bells on Cat Collars Save Birds?

Yes, they do. Some studies show that cats wearing a collar with a bell capture fewer birds than cats without. So, bells do reduce hunting success.

Some cat parents are skeptical about the effectiveness of the bells. And rightfully so, after all their fur babies still catch birds and mice even with a bell. So, what’s the point?

Well, as pointed out above, the bell doesn’t stop your cat from killing wildlife, it simply reduces the success rate. A cat catching two birds in a month is better than a cat catching five birds per week, right? Wildlife protection isn't an all-or-nothing prospect.

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To make matters worse some cat parent’s skepticism is exacerbated by the fact that while there are studies supporting the effectiveness of cat collars, there are counter arguments as well.

“One of the oldest tactics to keep wildlife safe from cats is to put a bell on outdoor cats’ collars. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. The sound of a bell tinkling isn’t something that wildlife associates with predators or other danger.” National Wildlife Federation

Now, who would argue with the National Wildlife Federation? Any pet parent would agree they know best. Am I right?

Well, the National Wildlife Federation also warns that the only safe way to stop domesticated cat predation of wildlife is by keeping domesticated cats indoors.

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My Cat Might Get Frustrated

I've also encountered some people who are concerned about the frustration of a hunt gone bad.

If your cat wants to hunt but they never manage to catch their prey, it can leave them frustrated and irritable. While not a big deal, this is still a consideration though.

Cat Playing With a Toy Image by Toe Beans

This one is actually true, to an extent, and it's why laser pointers aren't always a good toy for cats. The trick is to play with them using a toy they can actually catch.

That way, they get to be successful, and you can reward them with a treat when you're done.

My Cat is a Good Boy/Girl

Some people also believe the best of their fur babies and assume that just because they've never had their cat bring them a bite, it means the cat doesn't hunt.

Unfortunately, that's simply not true; it just means the cat is more likely to have devoured their prey somewhere secluded, possibly because of food anxiety or bullying at home if you have multiple cats.

It's not that they're ashamed or that they just don't want to bring it home; it's that they don't want to share or risk having it taken from them.

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My Cat Will Figure Out How the Bell Works, so There's no Point

Finally, some people think that cats can learn to adapt to the bell and will walk more softly and pounce more slowly to avoid alerting their prey.

Realistically, though, this doesn't seem to happen when cats are observed hunting with a bell.

They get so caught up in what they're doing that they forget they even have a bell, and when their fuzzy little instincts tell them to pounce, they pounce, tinkling merrily all the way.

Rejecting the Bell: Alternatives to Bell Collars

If you decide that, despite it all, you really don't want your fur baby to suffer the indignity of the bell, or if your cat doesn't tolerate it or rips it off, there are some alternatives you can try.

Cat in a Harness Image by Toe Beans

The first is, of course, just to keep your fur baby indoors all the time. This is generally the recommended thing to do anyway, just because as discussed above, there are so many hazards outside the home. In fact, indoor-only cats live decidedly longer, healthier lives than indoor-outdoor or outdoor-only cats.

Another option, if you want to let your cat roam and still want to protect the wildlife, is something like a Birds Be Safe collar attachment. This is a bright, colorful frill that attaches to a breakaway collar and alerts birds when they see it coming. It's like a bell, but visual, for birds that are already very aware of the colors around them. Again, there are arguments for and against this option.

Incidentally, if your cat is a "working cat" and actively protects your home from mice and other rodents, the colored frill is a great idea. It's most effective against birds, but mice don't notice it.

Other forms of supervised outdoor activity can help prevent your cat from killing birds and other wildlife as well. Birds might not notice a cat stalking them, but they'll notice if you're right behind the cat! Keeping your cat on a harness when they're outdoors can be very helpful.

You can also use an enclosure, something like a thin, nearly transparent cat tent that gives them fresh air and the opportunity to play outside but keeps them closed off from the chance to hunt.

Another option, which you can do in conjunction with the others, is lifestyle changes that make your cat less likely to hunt prey outdoors.

For one thing, a high-protein, low-grain diet helps give your cat all of the benefits of hunting and keeps them feeling sated (and sleepier). They'll be less inclined to hunt when their biological signals aren't telling them that they need to eat more meat.

Alternatively, you can also play with them and reward them after a successful mock hunt. This gives them the mental stimulation and fulfillment of a hunt without actually resulting in a dead animal.

Both of these combined can reduce a cat's need to hunt, which in conjunction with a belled collar, can be very effective.

“Households where a high meat protein, grain-free food was provided, and households where 5–10 min of daily object play was introduced, recorded decreases of 36% and 25%, respectively, in numbers of animals captured and brought home by cats, relative to controls and the pre-treatment period.” - The Journal of Current Biology.

Whether you're in it for the protection of your cat, for the salvation of the local wildlife, or just because you want the noise of the bell around, you have a lot of options.

Either way, though, if your fur baby goes outdoors, they should always have a collar on with identification tags. Even indoor-only cats can escape, so if you don’t use a collar, make sure s/he is microchipped so they can be brought home if they're found.

Where do you stand on the issue? Does your cat wear a collar? Does it have a bell? Do you have any other pet questions or debates you'd like me to dig into? If so, be sure to let me know, and I'll pencil it in for one of my next blog posts!

One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA, 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!

As always, if you found this content useful, all our blog content on toe beans is shareable. So, what are you waiting for to spread the love 😻? Go ahead and hit any social media icon of your preference around the post for instant sharing with friends and family. Sharing is caring! ⤵️

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

2 Responses

K. MARIE - TOE BEANS TEAM
K. MARIE - TOE BEANS TEAM

February 29, 2024

Heather – Thanks so much for sharing your story. As a kid, I had an indoor/outdoor kitty and I remember those bloody surprises, thankfully I didn’t have to clean them up! With 20+ years of pet parenting on my side, I totally get how worried you would be about the change, and I’m glad this post was able to help ease your concern. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes super simple changes are the perfect solution to a problem!

Heather J.
Heather J.

February 29, 2024

This is a very informative article. Thank you. I have three cats, one of whom is a very keen hunter. I have been finding a bloodbath in my bathtub every single day, as she dismembers and partially eats about five or six mice a day, that I know of. She also brings mice inside and leaves body parts here and there throughout the house, giving me a good shock and requiring me to dispose of these odds and ends when I least expect it. The last straw was when she killed a bird in my bathtub and left a huge mess of feathers and other bits, breaking my heart as well, because birds are different than mice. We don’t need fewer birds.

Anyway, I put a collar on her with a bell. That was three or four days ago, and there have been zero incidents since then. I am so pleased with the ease of this solution, and I feel blessed that it completely solved my problem. I have been worried that she would feel unfulfilled now that she isn’t bringing her trophies home anymore. Plus, I worried that the bell would annoy her. Your article helped ease my mind, though, especially regarding cats not hearing under a certain amount of decibels. I was also interested to understand the damage cats are doing to the bird population, so that was helpful, too, and made making up my mind very easy.

I can’t keep my cats indoors, as they would go nuts as well as driving me nuts in the process. I’m glad to have this alternative. So easy, so inexpensive. I even bought a backup breakaway bell collar because I know she’ll get it off at some point. No worries! I’ll just put another one on. If anyone is thinking of trying this, it is definitely worth a shot. What do you have to lose? It has changed my life. I no longer have to clean up a whole lot of yuckiness on a regular basis. Woohoo!

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