Conservation news

More meat and playtime can calm your killer kitty

  • A new study found that feeding cats a grain-free, high-meat-protein diet and engaging in 5 to 10 minutes of daily object play reduce predation by cats by up to 36% and 25%, respectively.
  • High densities of cats have been linked to devastating effects on populations of small vertebrates at continental scales including billions of small mammals and birds killed each year in the United States alone.
  • Although keeping your cat indoors is the only way to prevent it from hunting, those involved in the study expressed hope that these preventative measures will be simple enough for pet owners with indoor/outdoor cats to adopt, sparing the lives of many small and wild creatures.

If you own a cat that roams outdoors, you’ve likely been the recipient of some grim gifts: a dead bird, decapitated mammal, ripped reptile, or even the odd, dismembered insect. While no one likes to find these gruesome offerings, many of the methods used to control cats’ hunting behaviors are controversial, even the most effective, keeping the cat indoors.  But what if a change in diet and more quality time could at least curb the killing?

A new study published in Current Biology reports that feeding cats a grain-free, high-meat-protein diet and engaging in five to 10 minutes of daily predatory-like object play reduced real predation by cats by up to 36% and 25%, respectively.

Image from Cecchetti et al 2021.

“Our study shows that — using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods — owners can change what the cats themselves want to do,” Robbie McDonald, a professor from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute in the U.K. and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.”

The researchers recruited cat owners with cats that regularly hunted and brought their captures back to home to participate in the study. Participating cats were assigned one of the following treatments: wearing a collar with a bell or a Birdsbesafe collar cover; feeding the cats using a “puzzle” feeder; feeding commercial, grain-free food in which meat was the principal source of protein; engaging the cat in five to 10 minutes of object play; and a control group with no changes.

More than 200 households in southwest England, owning 355 cats, completed the trial, recording the number of animals captured and brought home during a 12-week period both before and during the experimental changes.

Cats in the study engaged in the experimental treatments: (a) bell collar, (b) high meat food, (c) puzzle feeder, (d) Birdsbesafe collar cover, (e) object play with a “fishing toy”, and  (f) no treatment. Image from Cecchetti et al 2021.

Changes in food and play had the most significant effect, dramatically reducing the number of dead animals brought home compared to the control, non-treatment group. Cats that used a puzzle feeder killed more animals. Bell and Birdsbesafe collars had no noticeable effect on small mammals’ deaths, but the Birdsbesafe collar did reduce the number of bird kills.

The researchers aren’t entirely sure why the diet change has such a drastic impact on hunting behavior, but they have some ideas.

“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 Ph.D. student at University of Exeter who conducted the experiments.

“In my experience, this is 100% true. I feed my cats grain-free food but when I leave town they get the cheap stuff and bring tons of animals back into my apartment,” Brittany Schall, an artist and cat owner in New Orleans, Louisiana, told Mongabay. “They brought a squirrel in once and it ran rampant in my apartment for three days before it passed. No one could catch it and it knocked paintings off the wall and knocked glass bottles into my bathroom sink and the sink fell and broke in half.”

Jeanne Clawed is less of a killer when she eats a high meat diet and has play time. Photo by Brittany Schall.

According to a 2013 study in the journal Nature Communications, at least 1.3 billion birds and up to 22.3 billion small mammals are killed by cats every year in the United States alone. High densities of cats have been linked to devastating effects on populations of small vertebrates at continental scales in Australia, and predation risk alone affects the birth and death rates of birds.

Previous research has aimed to prevent cats from hunting by inhibiting their behavior: keeping them indoors or using special collars and deterrents. And while keeping cats inside is the only sure way to stop the hunt, many owners expressed concern about the animals’ welfare, as predation is part of cats’ natural behavior.

“We are really encouraged by the findings of this study,” said Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy at iCatCare, which was part of the advisory group for this research. “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.

“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.”

Those involved in the study, as well as animal welfare groups, expressed hope that these preventative measures will be simple enough for pet owners to adopt, sparing the lives of many small and wild creatures.

Citation:

Cecchetti, M., Crowley S. L., Goodwin C. E. D., & McDonald, R. A. (2021). Provision of high meat content food and object play reduce predation of wild animals by domestic cats Felis catus. Current Biology, 31(1-5). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.12.044

Banner image of Tom the cat by Dennis van Zuijlekom via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter@lizkimbrough_

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