In the UK, the estimated population of pet cats is 10.9 million. Domestic cats are considered to be one of the most abundant carnivores in the country. They are major predators of wildlife – birds and mammals, as well as others – which has led to much discussion over the impact they have on wider wildlife populations and biodiversity. Finding ways to balance the needs and welfare of cats with the importance of mitigating their predatory influence has become a key issue.

What are some ways to remove or reduce the threat of domestic cats to wildlife?

The only way to completely remove the threat of domestic cats to wildlife would be to keep all cats indoors. However, considering around 90% of cats in the UK have regular access to the outdoors, this solution is not really feasible. Allowing cats the freedom to roam and explore outside in a stimulating environment increases opportunities for physical exercise and expression of natural behaviours. As a result of these benefits, many owners are worried about the welfare implications of confining their cats to the indoors permanently and are reluctant to impose this measure. Some compromise by keeping them inside at night.  

Other strategies, such as the use of collars fitted with bells and sonic devices, are aimed at interfering with hunting behaviours and minimising the impact cats have on wildlife.  A previous study showed that these collar-mounted devices can be successful in reducing predation rates. However, some cats may resent wearing a collar and become distressed. If too loosely fitted, cats can remove collars by themselves. And, most importantly, there are concerns that collars can get caught and cause injury or strangulation.

Are there other strategies to mitigate the threat that cats pose?

The above methods work by inhibiting a cat’s ability to pursue or catch their prey, without removing their instinct or desire to hunt. A new study from the University of Exeter aimed to explore whether the latter can be achieved through non-invasive dietary and behavioural modifications. Researchers included 355 cats that were regular hunters and often brought captured prey back to their owners. They were split into six different groups:

  1. Puzzle feeder: cats were given food in a puzzle feeder, the design of which promotes mental and physical stimulation 
  2. High meat-protein diet: cats were offered high-quality food that was rich in meat-protein and grain-free
  3. Play: cats were engaged in 5 to 10 minutes of playtime with toys every day 
  4. Collar-mounted bells
  5. Birdbesafe: cats wore brightly coloured collar covers designed to warn off prey
  6. Control: these cats were used as a point of comparison, so no interventions were adopted

Each day, owners recorded the number of prey that their cats brought home. Results showed that collar-mounted bells had no effect, while Birdbesafe decreased the number of birds that were preyed on but not mammals. Conversely (and unexpectedly), puzzle feeders increased prey numbers. However, the most significant findings from the trial are that feeding cats a high meat-protein diet and engaging in daily playtime reduced predation rates on wildlife by 36% and 25% respectively.

So does playing with my cat reduce the harm to wildlife?

The results from the above study suggests that even just 5 minutes of playtime each day can reduce the total number of prey that cats kill and bring home. Wand or ‘fishing rod’ and mouse toys were utilised as part of the study and these are both affordable and easy to find. Initially, a wand toy can be used to encourage your cat to stalk, chase and pounce. This can then be followed by the offering of a furry mouse toy that your cat can catch and manipulate. In this way, playtime emulates a cat’s hunting sequence and allows them the opportunity to express natural behaviours. 

It is worth noting that care should be taken with laser pointers, which are a commonly recommended toy for cats. While they will stimulate your cat’s prey drive, they do not allow for the pounce and catch parts of the hunting sequence and can cause frustration. If laser pointers are used during playtime, it is best to follow up with a toy that can be physically manipulated.

Not only does playing help fulfil your cat’s hunting instincts, but it also deepens the bond you have with them. Many owners who participated in the study reported that they were likely to continue with playtime after the trial. Cats were engaged in the interactive experience and some would also initiate play themselves. By stimulating their senses, they can also keep active and are less likely to become bored.

Final Words

New research has led to some positive developments in how pet cats can be managed so as to minimise the impact they have on wildlife. Whereas previous strategies have been based on invasive or inhibitory measures, a short session of play can be an enjoyable experience for both cat and owner. Now there is all the more reason to set aside time each day for playing with your cat; as well as improving their wellbeing, it can help to reduce the number of wildlife they prey on. 

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