Domestic cats hunt less wild animals when owners play with them daily and feed them a meat-rich food, new research shows.
Hunting by cats is a conservation and welfare issue, but methods of reducing it are controversial and often rely on limiting cat behavior in ways that many owners find unacceptable.
The new study – from the University of Exeter – found that the introduction of a premium commercial food made with protein derived from meat reduced the number of prey cats brought home by 36% and played five to ten minutes with an owner every day resulted in a 25% reduction.
“Previous research in this area has focused on inhibiting the ability of cats to hunt by either keeping them indoors or equipping them with collars, devices and deterrents,” said Professor Robbie McDonald of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute.
“While keeping cats indoors is the only surefire way to prevent hunting, some owners have been concerned about the impact of restricting their cat’s access to the outdoors.
“Our study shows that owners can use completely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods to change what cats want to do themselves.
“By playing with cats and changing their diet, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without limiting their freedom.”
The study enrolled owners who simulated the hunt by moving a feather toy on a string and wand to allow cats to stalk, hunt, and pounce. The owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each “hunt”, which mimicked a real kill.
It is not clear what elements of the meaty diet led to a decrease in hunting.
“Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that some cats, despite a complete diet, may become deficient in one or more micronutrients, causing them to hunt,” said PhD student Martina Cecchetti who conducted the experiments.
“However, meat production poses clear climate and environmental problems. One of our next steps is to see if specific micronutrients can be added to cat food to reduce hunting.
“We also plan to investigate whether different types of games have different effects and whether combining strategies can further reduce hunting.”
The study, which is based on a 12-week study of 355 cats in 219 households in south-west England, also looked at the effects of existing devices to limit hunting by cats.
The colorful “Birdsbesafe” collar covers the number of birds caught and brought home by 42%, but has no effect on mammal hunting.
Overall, cat bells had no discernible effect – although researchers say the effects on individual cats varied widely, suggesting that some cats learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell.
Lisa George from Helston, Cornwall, who looks after Minnie, a three-year-old tabby cat who participated in the trial, said, “Minnie loves to hunt. Most of the time, she brings her prey home and lets them go inside. We had birds in the bedroom, rats in the trash (it took us three days to catch them) and rabbits in the utility room.
“When I moved Minnie’s food (formerly supermarket store brand) in Lily’s Kitchen, I found that she was barely hunted. This went on all the time she was consuming that food. I can honestly tell you the difference in relation to them could not believe hunting behavior. “
George Bradley of Project Sponsor SongBird Survival said, “This latest study that we have funded is great news for birds.
“The data shows that cat owners (like me) can take a few small and simple steps to truly improve the health and happiness of our pets and make a big difference to all of our wildlife, especially our beloved songbirds.
“These easy-to-implement changes will be win-win for birds, cats and cat owners.”
Dr. Sarah Ellis, iCatCare’s Director of Cat Advocacy, who is part of the advisory group for this research, said, “We are really encouraged by the results of this study.
“While many cat owners are wildlife enthusiasts and find the killing and harming of wildlife by their cats a nuisance, many owners also feel that keeping their cats indoors or restricting their outdoor access would negatively affect their cats’ quality of life.
“At iCatCare, we are particularly excited about the positive effects of the game. This is an activity that owners can easily introduce at no or low cost, that takes little time and is very cat-friendly.
“The mental and physical stimulation of a predatory game will likely help keep a cat in tip-top condition and provide an appropriate behavioral outlet for its predatory behavior.”
Dr. Adam Grogan, director of wildlife at the RSPCA, welcomed the study’s findings.
“The RSPCA cares for cats and wildlife, and we want to provide advice to cat owners that will benefit both cats and wildlife,” he said.
“This project gives us alternatives for cat owners that are simple, effective and so easy to adopt.”