Your cat may look loveably innocent and placid as it sits on your sofa or pads about your home, but the truth is that however domesticated they seem, the humble moggy carries some fine hunting instincts deep within.
Blessed with explosive speed, great agility and cunning, it’s estimated that the average cat kills around 40 animals a year, although some are deadlier hunters than others.
Solutions to prevent cats hunting and killing wildlife discussed below, include:
- The bell method (adding a bell to a cat’s collar – does it disrupt the cat’s hunting abilities?
- Food method (giving cats certain food and nutrition) – does this reduce the cat hunting?
- The keep indoors method – pretty simple & maybe the only surefire way to stop cats hunting & killing wildlife
- The play method – does engaging in play reduce a cat’s desire to go outside & hunt wildlife for real?
So if you’re a cat owner, you may have to get used to a steady stream of small dead animals being brought into your home – something that can be both annoying and distressing.
Hunting by cats is a conservation and welfare concern, but methods to reduce this are controversial and often rely on restricting cat behaviour in ways many owners find unacceptable.
The new study – by the University of Exeter – found that introducing a premium commercial food where proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36%, and also that five to ten minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.
“Previous research in this area has focussed 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 cat’s outdoor access.
“Our study shows that – using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods – owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.
“By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.”
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 is not clear what elements of the meaty 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, the PhD student who conducted the experiments.
“However, meat production raises clear climate and environmental issues, so one of our next steps is to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting.
“We 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 hunting of mammals.
Cat bells had no discernible overall effect – although the researchers say the impact on individual cats varied widely, suggesting some cats learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell.
Lisa George, from Helston, Cornwall, looks after Minnie, a 3-year old tabby cat who took part in the trial, said: “Minnie loves to hunt. More often than not she will bring her prey home and let it go in the house. We’ve had birds in the bedroom, rats in the waste paper bin (which took us three days to catch), rabbits in the utility room.
“On changing Minnie’s food (previously supermarket own-brand), to Lily’s Kitchen, I found she hardly hunted at all. This continued the whole time she was on this food. I can honestly say I couldn’t believe the difference as regards her hunting behaviour.”
George Bradley, from project sponsors SongBird Survival, said: “This latest study we have funded is 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.
“Making these easy-to-implement changes will be a win-win for birds, cats and cat owners.”
Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Advocacy at iCatCare, which is part of the advisory group for this research project, said: “We are really encouraged by the findings of this study.
“While many cat owners are wildlife lovers and find the killing and injuring of wild animals by their cats upsetting, many owners also feel that keeping their cats indoors or restricting their outdoor access would impact negatively on their cats’ quality of life.
“At iCatCare, we are particularly excited about the positive effects of play – this is an activity that owners can easily introduce at no or little cost, takes little time and is very cat-friendly.
“The mental and physical stimulation of predatory-like play are likely to help keep a cat in tip top condition and provide an appropriate behavioural outlet for its predatory behaviours.”
Dr Adam Grogan, Head of Wildlife at the RSPCA, 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.
“This project provides us with alternatives for cat owners that are simple and effective and so easy to adopt.
The paper, published in the journal Current Biology, is entitled: “Provision of high meat content food and object play reduce predation of wild animals by domestic cats Felis catus.”
Once live, the paper will be available at: https://www.cell.com/current-
Recommendations following this study of cat hunting
To reduce predation of wildlife by cats, and to protect your pet from outdoor hazards, like roads, diseases, and fights with other animals, the only sure-fire approach is to keep your cat indoors. Keeping cats indoors overnight reduces these risks. Our research shows, however, that many cat owners value outdoor access for their cats, so this approach won’t suit everyone. You can find out more about improving the indoor environment to keep your cats healthy and happy on the iCatCare and RSPCA websites.
Because many owners do let their cats outdoors, we researched other methods that reduce predation while making positive contributions to cat health and welfare.
Our study found good evidence that the following methods led to significant reductions in predation of wildlife by cats that were regular hunters. The effects vary between cats. Most of our study cats still killed wild animals – old habits die hard – but overall numbers can be greatly reduced.
If your cat hunts birds and mammals:
Try using a complete diet, where the protein source comes from meat. Our trial used Lily’s Kitchen, though other similar brands are available. We recommend you seek and follow veterinary advice when changing your cat’s food, and follow the manufacturer’s guidance on the amount you should feed. Always introduce new foods gradually, over at least a week. A combination of dry and wet foods can be used.
If your cat mostly hunts mammals:
- Try the dietary change!
- Introduce daily play with your cat. The owners in our trial played with their cats for 5-10 minutes a day. We used a feather toy on a string attached to a “wand”, like a short fishing rod, which owners moved in a manner that allowed the cat to chase and pounce on the feather toy. After playing like this for a few minutes, we let the cats capture the toy and then quickly replaced it with a crinkly mouse-type toy for the cat to ‘kill’, kick and manipulate. Playing with their cat was positively received by our owners as it made them feel closer to their pets.
If your cat mostly hunts birds:
- Try the dietary change!
- If your cat is comfortable with wearing a collar, try fitting a Birdsbesafe collar cover over an existing, safety (quick-release) cat collar before it goes out. In our trial we used a rainbow-pattern cover. Remove the Birdbesafe collar cover when your cat is indoors.
Hunting is in their nature
Cats can catch a variety of small animals, including mice and other small mammals, birds and bats. In fact, part of the reason they were domesticated in first place was due to their fine abilities to kill disease-carrying rodents. The behaviour can be particularly acute in neutered females, who in the absence of having young ones to care for, may be transferring their attentions to you.
While wild big cats such as tigers have to hunt to live, and so learn the essential skills from birth, domestic cats are often not taught the essentials by parents. This may not prevent them from developing into skilled hunters, but it can mean that they do not learn the art of delivering a clean kill by biting the nape of the neck of prey.
This can mean a messy, drawn-out death for their prey – and distress for you if the animal is brought into your kitchen or living room. And if your cat eats what it has killed, this could also make it ill – something which could mean trips to the vet, and which pet insurance could help protect against.
What can you do to stop your cat hunting?
The simplest way to curb your cat’s killing is to keep it in at night, when the hunting instinct is strongest. While it has been suggested that not letting them out at night – and therefore suppressing their natural nocturnal instinct to hunt – can be cruel, it is believed that by limiting its opportunities, the animal’s desire to hunt also naturally decreases.
Limit cat’s opportunity to hunt & kill wildlife (birds, mammals)
In addition to limiting the opportunity to get at small animals, this policy will also help keep down numbers of feral cats – if your pet isn’t neutered, then it may well be contributing to unwanted litters of kittens, which may ultimately add to the feral cat population. In addition, feral cats – which need to hunt to survive – pose a greater threat to wildlife than your pampered pet. In fact, the RSPCA recommends that, unless you specifically want your pet to breed, then it is a good idea to have it neutered.
The RSPB suggests that you fit your cat with a collar with a bell or a sonar device, something which will hopefully give birds a sufficient heads-up that a hunter is approaching. As cats learn to move without rattling a single bell, it may be better to fit them with two devices to make it harder to approach stealthily.
And although this may sound counter-intuitive, it is believed that it can be a good idea to attract birds to your garden by providing a birdbath, nesting boxes and food – the idea being that there is safety – and greater alertness – in numbers.
Additional Tips to Stop Cat Hunting From RSPB
• Fit a bell to your cat’s collar – This simple addition could cut predation by at least a third. For those cats who don’t suit bells (apparently some will refuse to go out wearing them) there are other gadgets out there; from audio-visual alarm collars which sense the inertia of your cat’s pounce, to cat bibs, a device from the US which gets in the way just as the cat strikes out for the bird.
• Make sure your cat is well fed – Sounds logical, yet unlikely to work as a stand-alone measure. Few animals can be wholly trusted to turn down snacks on the basis of having already eaten.
• Impose a cat curfew – In an unlucky coincidence, it seems those times your cat is most desperate to escape the house – around sunset, sunrise and after bad weather – coincide with the most vulnerable point in the birds’ timetable, ie feeding time. During these high-risk hours you may also find unaccompanied fledglings on the ground and should take your cat indoors until baby and parent bird are reunited and have fled the scene.
• Avoid feeding birds on the floor – Choose higher ground or install a bird feeder to keep the birds out of reach. If your cat’s a climber, this won’t do, and the advice is to make it very unpleasant for any cat attempting to pursue their prey.