Object Play and High Protein Food Reduce Predation by Cats

A new study offers ways to reduce predation on wildlife that also benefit cats.

Posted Feb 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

“I hate that he kills stuff,” Annie told me, “but I also feel that it is wrong to keep Captain inside. He lives to hunt and I don’t want to take that away from him.” Annie is typical of many people I’ve talked to who live with a companion cat. She is deeply ambivalent about letting her cat Captain outside. She cringes every time Captain brings home a dead bird or mouse, but she also believes that by keeping Captain inside, she is denying him one of his primal needs: to stalk, hunt, and kill prey. “If I lock him inside,” Annie says, “he sits by the glass patio doors all day and meows to go out. I can’t stand it.” 

Willian Justen de Vasconcellos/Unsplash
Source: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos/Unsplash

The indoor vs. outdoor cat dilemma is one of the most contentious and ethically challenging issues that cat guardians must navigate. There is no question that predation by pet cats has a significant impact on populations of birds and small mammals and that reducing hunting by cats is critical to conservation efforts. There is also no question that domestic cats retain the behavioral motivation to stalk, hunt, and kill prey—and that they have strong predatory drives whether they live indoors or out. Keeping cats inside has been conceptualized as involving an unfortunate trade-off: We compromise their welfare because we thwart their desire to hunt.

A study published last week in Current Biology offers a new way to think about trade-offs: The authors suggest that cat guardians can reduce predation using non-invasive methods that actually contribute to, rather than detract from, cat welfare. (You can read the full paper here.)  

A group of researchers at the University of Exeter tested several different interventions—including several that haven’t yet been investigated—to see how they would influence predation by cats. The researchers recruited 219 households with cats who were allowed outside access and who regularly hunted and brought home prey. Different households were asked to apply one of five interventions and to record, before and after the intervention, the number of birds and small mammals brought home by their cats.

Here, briefly, are the interventions they tested and how effectively they reduced predation.

Researchers tested two existing methods thought to potentially inhibit predation by offering a “warning” to potential prey.

  • Bells: Bells fitted to cats’ collars are meant to give potential prey an auditory warning of a cat’s presence. Bells had no discernable effect on predation.
  • Birdbesafe: Birdbesafe collar covers are brightly colored “scrunchies” that fit onto a collar and are meant to offer a visual warning to potential prey. These reduced the number of birds caught by 42 percent but had no discernable effect on the number of small mammals killed.

They also tested three novel interventions:

  • High meat-protein food: Cats were provided a commercial grain-free food in which real meat (not rendered meat or meat meal) was the primary source of protein. Predation was decreased by 36 percent.
  • Object play: Cat guardians spent 5-10 minutes each day playing with their cat using a feather wand that simulated hunting behavior, so cats could stalk and pounce. Cats were also given a toy mouse to “kill.” Predation decreased by 25 percent.
  • Puzzles: Cats were given their existing food in a puzzle feeder. Predation increased by 33 percent. (I was surprised by this result!)

These research results are very promising because they reinforce the idea that cat guardians can reduce their cat’s impact on wildlife while at the same time improving their cat’s welfare. The non-invasive and cat-positive interventions of high-protein food and more play have no downsides for our cats and can help protect the critters our cats love to hunt.

References

Martina Cecchetti, Sarah L. Crowley, Cecily E.D. Goodwin, Robbie A. McDonald. Provision of High Meat Content Food and Object Play Reduce Predation of Wild Animals by Domestic Cats Felis catus. Current Biology, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.12.044