Cats are so cute and cuddly, we forget that they’ve only been domesticated for about 5,000 years. That cute and cuddly pet is actually an instinctive killer, resulting in the deaths of 22 billion mammals and 4 billion birds worldwide. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species.
Some cat behaviorists question those numbers but there’s no denying domestic cats take a heavy toll on local bird populations. You can’t train a cat to deny this killer instinct, but some researchers believe it can be controlled.
To that end, researchers at the University of Essex in Great Britain tried a variety of strategies to lower the cat death toll on wildlife.
A couple of hundred cat owners from southwestern England whose pets regularly hunted outside were recruited for a study. They were divided into 6 groups, including one control group where no behavior modification was attempted. “Some wore bells to make it easier for the prey to hear them coming, while others wore colorful Birdsbesafe collars that birds easily see.”
In other groups, owners fed their cats with “puzzle feeders,” food-dispensing toys designed to challenge the feline. Still others changed their cats’ food to a store-bought brand that is grain-free and made entirely of animal protein. (It comes in both wet and dry forms.) The owners of a final group of cats spent 5 to 10 minutes per day playing with their pets; the people were instructed to use a feather toy on a string to simulate hunting and then replace it with a crinkly mouse-type toy.
For 12 weeks, the owners took pictures of every animal their cats brought home.
Nearly all of the approaches curbed the cats’ killer instinct, the scientists report today in Current Biology. The Birdsbesafe collar was the most effective way to reduce the number of birds the kitties brought home, cutting the total by 42% on average. But the high-meat diet and playtime approaches had the most sweeping impacts, slashing all types of animals on the doorstep by 36% and 25%, respectively.
According to the study, bells had no effect on the cat’s body count and the puzzle feeder actually increased predation by 33 percent.
Why did the meatier diet and playtime work to reduce the cat’s hunting?
The study didn’t look at what makes each strategy work. But McDonald believes the richer meat food may have filled a nutrient gap in the cats’ diet, and that the playtime satiated part of their hunting instinct. “Most of the cats still killed wild animals because old habits die hard,” he says. “But overall the numbers were greatly reduced.”
Depending on where you live, your first option should be to keep kitty indoors. Or, if you take him outside, he should be on a leash. This is especially true in an urban area and you live near a road. Cats may be smart in many things but for some reason, have yet to master the art of dodging automobiles. If you think I’m wrong, try counting the number of dead cats on the road the next time you take a long drive.
Not only that, allowing a cat to roam exposes them to all kinds of parasites, including fleas. Indoor cats are healthier and have a longer life span.
Most domestic cats must be taught to kill by their mother — just like they’re taught in the wild. If you’ve seen an unschooled cat catch a mouse, he’d much rather play with it than kill it. The critter is likelier to die of fright than a killer chomp to its spinal cord.
So this mitigation strategy isn’t for all cats. But if you choose to allow your kitty to roam, have mercy on the local bird and vole population. Try the meatier diet and play with kitty every day.