More Play and Meat Can Tame Killer Cats

Feeding your cat more meat and playing with them each day can reduce the number of wild animals they hunt and kill — over 2 billion birds and 12 billion mammals in the United States alone each year.

This image shows a cat playing. Encouraging play is one way to help prevent cats from hunting wildlife. (Credit: Martina Ceccheti)

(CN) — You love your cat. You also like to watch the birds flitting in your backyard trees. But these lovely creatures are part of an ancient food chain that pits one against the other.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology has found ways to keep your cat happy while protecting the birds they like to hunt.

Researchers at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute in the U.K. have discovered that feeding domestic cats plenty of meat and playing with them in ways that mimic hunting techniques can reduce their desire to hunt wildlife without restricting their freedom.

“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 of the University of Exeter. “Our study shows that — using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods — owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.”

For decades, some cat owners have kept their cats indoors or made them wear brightly colored collars to limit wildlife loss. While these strategies have helped to protect birds, they’ve had little effect on cats killing mammals, to say nothing of the misery some cats feel at being cooped up inside all their lives.

To solve these problems, researchers enrolled 219 households in southwest England to test their strategies. The study, which involved 355 domestic cats, showed that meat-centric diets reduced the number of prey cats brought home by 36%.

“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 doctoral student who conducted the experiments.

In addition to dietary changes, researchers tested whether how people feed their cats could make a difference. The result? Use of so-called “puzzle feeders,” which require cats to solve obstacles in order to get to their food, actually increased the rate of prey animals showing up at the front door. Researchers think the reasons for this may include difficulty using the feeders, leaving cats hungrier than when feeding traditionally.

Other noninvasive methods proved more effective in curbing hunting instincts. For example, utilizing play to encourage cats to stalk, chase and pounce on toys dangled by their owners for as little as ten minutes a day reduced predation by 25%, according to the study.

Researchers consider their study groundbreaking because it accounts for cats’ psychological and behavioral needs as well as the survival of wildlife. Other studies tended to emphasize bird survival while ignoring cat welfare. But study results suggest one need not take priority over the other, making cat owners more likely to adopt its recommendations.

“In managing predation by domestic cats, owner behavior is as important as cat behavior and so, to reduce killing by cats, management strategies need to be both effective and implemented by owners. Positive interventions, aimed at benefiting cats and appealing to owners, can reduce cats’ tendencies to hunt, and might therefore form the basis of a conservation win-win,” the study states.

In future studies, researchers hope to discover new ways to reduce cat predation by exploring whether micronutrient additives in cat food could curb hunting even further.

“”We also plan to investigate whether different kinds of play have different effects and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even further,” Cecchetti said.

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