Millions of wildlife animals might be saved from death in the claws of domestic cats, if their owners were to feed them meat-rich food and play with them for 10 minutes a day.
In Australia, cats kill more than 1.5 billion native animals each year, and each domestic cat kills, on average, 76 animals each year.
A new study from the University of Exeter found that “introducing a premium commercial food where proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36 per cent, and also that five to 10 minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25 per cent reduction”.
This is the latest effort by Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute “to find a conservation win-win” in keeping cat owners and their critics relatively happy.
Who’s a sooky boy then?
As the researchers observe: “Hunting by cats is a conservation and welfare concern, but methods to reduce this are controversial and often rely on restricting cat behaviour in ways many owners find unacceptable.”
The short version: Most cat owners cannot abide the idea of their little killers being kept indoors for the sake of native birds, reptiles and baby mammals.
It’s not going too far to call this an international crisis, as far as the carnage goes. But authorities and advocacy groups tend to pussy-foot around when urging cat owners to change their behaviour.
Hence, researchers are forced to look for compromises and celebrate whatever looks like a win.
“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,” said Professor Robbie McDonald, co-author of the new study.
Professor McDonald said that 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.
He said: “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.”
What happened in the study?
The study was conducted over 12 weeks with 355 cats in 219 households in south-west England.
Play in the study involved owners “simulating hunting by moving a feather toy on a string and wand so cats could stalk, chase and pounce”.
Owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each ‘hunt’ in the lounge room, mimicking a real kill.
The researchers say it is “not clear” what elements of the meaty food led to the 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 Martina Cecchetti, a PhD student who conducted the experiments.
Ms Cecchetti said that because meat production raises “clear climate and environmental issues”, the researchers plan to investigate 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,” she said, in a prepared statement.
The study also examined the effect of existing devices used to limit hunting by cats.
Colourful collar covers reduced numbers of birds captured and brought home by 42 per cent, but had no effect on hunting of mammals.
Cat bells had no discernible overall effect – although the researchers say “the impact on individual cats varied widely, suggesting some cats learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell”.
In the statement from Exeter, Lisa George, from Helston in Cornwall, discussed the hunting habits of Minnie, a three-year-old tabby cat 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.
“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 behaviour.”
Also quoted was Dr Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy at iCatCare, which is part of the advisory group for the study: “We are really encouraged by the findings of this study.
“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.”
She said her advocacy group was “particularly excited” about the positive effects of play.
“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,” she said.
Previous Exeter research, as reported by The New Daily, find there were five different types of cat owner.
Only one type of owner, the Concerned Protector, kept their cats indoors – not to protect wildlife, but to ensure that Tiddles wasn’t stolen or injured in the big bad world.