Cats are cute and great companions, but owners of free-roaming moggies know there’s no denying they’re also mini-murderers.
It’s estimated cats in the UK catch up to 100 million prey over spring and summer, of which 27 million are birds. This isn’t good news for the nation’s wildlife.
Wanting to find a solution to this problem, researchers discovered that making two key changes in your cat’s life could reduce the amount of hunting they do – and neither option involves keeping your cat confined indoors.
The study by the University of Exeter found that introducing a meat-rich food reduced the number of prey cats brought home by 36%, and also that five to 10 minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.
“Previous research in this area has focused on inhibiting cats’ ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices and deterrents,” said professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute.
“While keeping cats indoors is the only sure-fire way to prevent hunting, some owners are worried about the welfare implications of restricting their outdoor access. Our study shows that – using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods – owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.”
‘Play’ in the study involved owners simulating hunting by moving a feather toy on a string and wand so cats could stalk, chase and pounce. Owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each “hunt”, mimicking a real kill.
It’s not clear what elements of meat-rich food led to the reduction in hunting. “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that despite forming a ‘complete diet’ these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients, prompting them to hunt,” said Martina Cecchetti, a PhD student who conducted the experiments.
Cecchetti said meat production raises clear climate and environmental issues, so one of their next steps is to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat food to reduce hunting. The team also plan to investigate whether different kinds of play have different effects, and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even further.
The study, based on a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 households in south-west England, also examined the effect of existing devices used to limit hunting by cats. Colourful “Birdsbesafe” collar covers reduced numbers of birds captured and brought home by 42%, but had no effect on the hunting of mammals.
Cat bells had no discernible overall effect, although the researchers say the impact on individual cats varied widely, suggesting some sneaky cats learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell.
George Bradley, from SongBird Survival, which funded the study, said the findings are “excellent news for birds”.
“The data show that cat owners (like me) can make a few small and easy steps to really improve the health and happiness of our pets as well as make a really big difference for all our wildlife, especially our beloved songbirds,” he said. “Making these easy-to-implement changes will be a win-win for birds, cats and cat owners.”
Dr Adam Grogan, head of wildlife at the RSPCA, also welcomed the results of the study. “The RSPCA cares for both cats and wild animals and we want to provide advice to cat owners that will benefit both cat and wild animal welfare,” he said. “This project provides us with alternatives for cat owners that are simple and effective and so easy to adopt.”