People looking to keep their outdoor cats from killing local wildlife might want to heed the findings of a new study released Thursday. It suggests that feeding your feline a diet rich in meat and playing with them regularly will help satiate their appetite for hunting.
Animal researchers in the UK enlisted the aid of 355 cats from 219 households in England for their experiment; the cats were specifically chosen for their habit of bringing home prey. To provide a reasonable baseline, all of the cats were observed in their natural setting for seven weeks before the experiment began. Then, over a period of five weeks, they had most of the cats experience various conditions that might affect their outdoor hunting behavior (a control group was left to their own devices the entire time). These conditions included different diets, toys, and devices marketed specifically to keep cats away from prey, such as collars with bells attached or a brightly colored collar easily seen by birds.
Compared to the control group and the cats’ baseline behavior, the researchers found that several methods seemed to cut down on wildlife hunting.
In cats that were given high-quality, protein-rich diets with plenty of meat and few grains, for instance, the number of animals brought home was reduced by 36%. In the play group—where owners played with their cats using feather wands and mouse-sized toys for five to 10 minutes a day—the reduction was 25%. The brightly colored collars also reduced predation of birds specifically by 42% but had no effect on the hunting of other small animals. Cat bells had no significant effect at all, and puzzle feeders seemed to actually increase hunting for some reason.
Though many commercial cat diets are high quality and rich in protein, it’s possible that some plant-based diets lack certain micronutrients that cats instinctively try to supplement with hunting. It’s not exactly clear why puzzle feeders failed so badly. It’s possible, the authors theorized, that the cats’ inexperience with them made them frustrated and hungrier at the same time.
Of course, the best way to keep cats from killing wildlife is to keep them indoors at all times. But some owners insist that cats need to have a dose of outdoor activity to stay healthy, and there may be semi-feral cats that remain adamant about living a double life. So for these situations, the researchers hope their conclusions can at least help some owners find a comfortable middle ground.
“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,” the authors wrote in their paper, published in Current Biology. “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 researchers plan to investigate if cat hunting can be reduced even further through behavioral tricks, such as by combining two or more methods. They also plan to study cat nutrition more closely, to see if they can identify any missing micronutrients that could be added to less-meaty diets.