Domestic cats become much less of a threat to wildlife when they are fed a diet that is rich in meat, according to new research from the University of Exeter. The experts also discovered that cats hunt for wildlife less when their owners play with them on a daily basis.
The study revealed that introducing a premium commercial food, where proteins came from meat, reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36 percent. In addition, five to ten minutes of daily play reduced hunting by 25 percent.
“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,” explained study co-author Professor Robbie McDonald.
“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.”
For the investigation, cat owners simulated hunting by moving a feather toy on a string so cats could stalk, chase, and pounce. As for the food, it is not yet clear which elements of the meat led to a 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 study lead author Martina Cecchetti.
“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 involved a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 households in southwest England. The researchers tested existing devices used to limit hunting by cats, such as collar covers and bells. Overall, these devices were found to be ineffective.
Lisa George has a three-year-old tabby cat named Minnie who took part in the trial.
“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,” said George.
“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 behavior.”
George Bradley of SongBird Survival, which sponsored the research, said the study 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.”
According to Bradley, making these simple changes will be a win-win for birds, cats, and cat owners.
“We are really encouraged by the findings of this study,” said Dr. Sarah Ellis of iCatCare. “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.”
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer