Domestic cats are a threat to wild species, including birds and small mammals, but there’s evidence that some simple strategies can help to reduce cats’ environmental impact without restricting their freedom.
According to a press release from eurekalert.org, researchers reporting in the Feb. 11 journal Current Biology say their studies show that domestic cats hunt less when owners feed them a diet including plenty of meat proteins.
It was also found that it helps equally to play with the felines each day in ways that allow cats to mimic hunting.
“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,” said Robbie McDonald from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute in the press release. “Our study shows that—using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods—owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.”
Methods such as putting cats in brightly colored collars can help protect birds from hunting cats. But these products don’t protect mammals, and some cats find them uncomfortable or tend to come home without them.
McDonald and his colleagues decided to try some new strategies, including the meaty diets and play, as well as puzzle feeders.
The researchers enrolled 219 households (and 355 cats) in Southwest England.
Over the course of the 12-week trial, it was found that diets with proteins derived from meat reduced the number of prey animals brought home to cat owners by 36 percent.
“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 Ph.D. student who conducted the experiments.
In the “play” group, cats could stalk, chase and pounce on a feather toy dangled by their owner on a string and wand. Owners also gave cats a mouse-like toy to play with after each “hunt,” mimicking a real kill. As little as five to 10 minutes a day of such play reduced predation by 25 percent.
Use of puzzle feeders didn’t have the desired effect. Owners found that their cats brought home even more prey animals than before. The reasons for that aren’t yet clear, although, according to the press release, it’s possible that cats struggling to use the puzzle feeders may have been hungrier.
In future studies, the researchers hope to find additional ways to reduce cat predation. They’re interested in exploring whether particular micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting without as much meat, as well as whether different kinds of play have different effects, and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even more.
This work was supported by SongBird Survival and the University of Exeter.
Current Biology, Cecchetti et al.: “Provision of high-meat-content food and object play reduce predation of wild animals by domestic cats Felis catus” https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)31896-0