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Good for cats and good for birds: hunting management strategies for making cats happier and wildlife safer

March 20, 2024
Dr Martina Cecchetti

Good for cats and good for birds: hunting management strategies for making cats happier and wildlife safer

Cats are undoubtedly fascinating animals; they make good companion animals while maintaining some wildness. However, this side comes with a price, which often shows up in the form of a little dead bird at our footstep. As a cat owner, I felt a mix of regret and guilt when this occurred, and I also could not really understand why my cat had to hunt...he had everything a cat could need! Or at least I thought so, according to my perceptions! At the same time, while I keep him in at night, I did not want to lock him up completely, confining him to an indoor existence; firstly, because he was already an adult cat with his habits, and secondly, I was worried this would have had bad implications for his health (I’ll discuss later why this can be overcome through environmental enrichment).

Considering most cat owners share my same dilemma of “cat freedom vs. bird safety”, I’ll tell you about my solutions, some of which are even designed on cat behavioural and physiological needs to reduce cat hunting tendency. These solutions don't impose on their natural behaviours and are beneficial to cats, so hopefully they will solve the dilemma for us all.
Let’s firstly try to understand why our well-cared pet cats have retained hunting behaviour.
Why do pet cats still hunt?

The cat is a member of the order Carnivora and descends from the Near-Eastern wildcats, which developed a mutually beneficial relationship with humans many, many years ago, probably by catching mice infesting the early agricultural settlements. Differently to dogs, which underwent strong artificial selection (with humans selecting desirable traits through controlled breeding), the domestic cat is largely a product of natural selection and remains morphologically, physiologically, and behaviourally similar to its progenitor. We can say that the “true” domestication of cats might have begun as little as ~200 years ago, making the domestic cat genetically “wild”!

For instance, domestic cats are obligate carnivores, who rely on meat for their survival because they are unable to synthetize essential nutrients (e.g. taurine, arginine) found in their prey. Many commercial pet foods are made up of plant-based proteins (e.g. soy, corn) which have lower digestibility with lower bioavailability and a less complete profile of amino acids than animal proteins. It is therefore possible that despite forming a 'complete diet', these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients prompting them to hunt. So, evolutionary legacy and diet can be strong drivers of hunting behaviour.

There are also ‘facilitators’ of hunting behaviour, like the early life history of the cat. In the first two/three months of its life, a kitten would prefer the preferred prey of the mother, so if she likes catching birds, the kitten is likely to prefer catching birds than mice. These first couple of months then influence hunting behaviours as an adult. Similarly, we have cat individual personalities, and perhaps more curious cats are more interested in hunting compared to shy ones.

Finally, we have the environment in which the cat lives. This can be intended both as rural vs urban, where prey availability and species are different, and the indoor house environment. Indoor environments can lack proper stimuli for a cat, who being unable to express its natural behaviours (e.g. climbing, hiding, hunting), becomes bored and decides to have fun hunting outdoors instead. For more information on this topic, check out our review “Drivers and facilitators of hunting behaviour in domestic cats and options for management”.

So, what can we do to help birds whilst not harming our cats?

Provision of high-meat content food and object play

Cats definitely depend on meat, and feeding pet cats with high-meat content food reduces the number of prey they kill (Note that the prey brought home form just a part of the total killing. However, it is a good proxy for testing management strategies). “High-meat content” means rich in proper meat- as the only source of protein- and grain free, but not not necessarily higher in protein content!  

We evaluated the effectiveness of this intervention in our research “Provision of High Meat Content Food and Object Play Reduce Predation of Wild Animals by Domestic Cats Felis catus”, where we compared the number of prey brought home by a group of cats before and after the introduction of the meaty food. We then compared this to a control group of cats (cats that did not undergo to any kind of management strategies). Cats provisioned with the meaty food brought back 36% less prey (mammals, birds and reptiles all together), and 44% less birds!!! Impressive, right?

However, meat production raises clear climate and environmental issues, so one of the next steps should be to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting.

In this study we also tested object play as a method to keep cats entertained. Owners with cats in the toy group were provided with a fishing toy and a mouse filled in bubble wrap to reproduce the hunting sequence. Owners were asked to play with their cats for at least 5 minutes per day. This strategy reduced the total number of prey brought home by 25%. I strongly encourage you to play with your cat, as the mental and physical stimulation of predatory-like play are likely to help keep them in top condition and provide an appropriate behavioural outlet for these predatory behaviours. More importantly, it might reinforce the bond with your cat for only 5-10 minutes a day!

Keeping your cat in at night

Predation is a direct impact of cats on wild birds. However, the mere presence of a cat roaming can elicit a series of indirect 'fear' effects. Now imagine a bird spotting a cat roaming around its nest, it will increase its alarm calls so that other birds are aware. This increase in alarm calls now makes it more exposed to other predators, in addition to creating reduced visits to the nest and so on.

The outdoors comes with hazards for our furry friends too- road accidents, fights with neighbour cats and disease transmission. Owners wishing to mitigate any risks to their cats associated with their roaming and reduce the indirect effects they have on birds, can keep their cats indoors, particularly at night, as it is the best way to reduce the extent of their roaming (check out our full research paper: Spatial behaviour of domestic cats and the effects of outdoor access restrictions and interventions to reduce predation of wildlife). Owners can enrich the home environment if you are concerned about cat aversion to confinement or about restricting cat natural behaviours. This can include providing hiding places (e.g., cardboard boxes) and opportunities for play and predatory behaviour (e.g., hiding food), and climbing (e.g. shelves, cat trees). Nevertheless, cats that are used to having unrestricted outdoor access may experience problems in adapting to a life of even partial confinement indoors. So, a pragmatic solution in such cases might be the use of outdoor enclosures, with enrichment by objects that enable the cat to hide, play and exercise (usually called ‘catios’).

The BirdsBeSafe collar cover, effective but does not make your cat happier!

As a deterrent, I would suggest the BirdsBeSafe collar cover. A colourful cover that can be attached to a quick release collar, which frames the cats face, disrupting its camouflage, and making it visible to prey with good colour vision like birds. It has been proven to be highly effective in many parts of the world, and when we tested it along with high-meat food and play time, we showed a reduction of 42% birds brought home.

However, this is an impediment and does not act on cat tendency to hunt, therefore it might cause frustration to the cat itself. If you decide to adopt this strategy, remember to take off the collar when the cat is in the house, so that it can groom itself properly.

I conclude saying that my favourite bird is the robin. I love its red breast and how friendly some individuals are. I used to enjoy the company of a robin, who I named Aldo while working in my garden in Italy. He was a pleasant distraction!

Dr Martina Cecchetti

Martina is a successful doctor who worked on the Cats and their Owners research project with SongBird Survival. Martina is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Las Palmas, Canary Islands, focusing on cats in biodiversity hotspots. She is an associated researcher at the University of Exeter and a winner of the prestigious L'Oreal women in science fellowship in 2022 and continues her quest to protect cats and wildlife.

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