paw patrol

Why do cats hunt? New study reveals 2 ways to stop them

If your feline friend brings you too many "presents," this is for you.

by Bailey Berg
Originally Published: 
cat with bird in mouth
Dorling Kindersley/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images

If your cat spends time outdoors, there’s a good chance they’ve brought you at least one macabre gift: a shredded bird, a mauled bunny, or perhaps one half of some other unfortunate creature.

These "presents" aren't just gross; studies show that when cats kill birds and small mammals, it harms biodiversity.

A new study could help cat owners stop their kitties from hunting so much, but unfortunately for the squeamish among you, the answer this research suggests may still turn your stomach.

What's new — Myriad solutions have been floated to stop cats from hunting (or at least, limiting their success). These range from little fixes, like putting a bell on their collar so prey hear them coming, to bigger decisions, like keeping your cat inside. But both these and other control methods are seen as controversial by some cat owners.

In the new study, published earlier this month in the journal Current Biology, University of Exeter researchers show how cat owners can stop their feline companions hunting. What they propose are essentially similar strategies to the brain hacks we humans try to break bad habits, or instill better behavior: by changing what the cats naturally want to do.

Why do cats hunt?

It can be confusing and frustrating to discover your pet has brought home a half-chewed animal, especially when you provide them constant access to kibble and treats. While this particular study didn’t delve into why pet cats hunt, others have tried to unravel the psychology behind this behavior.

From the evidence, it seems like hunting prey is only partially related to hunger — as many cat owners know, pet cats often don’t eat what they've killed.

Aside from hunger, cats' hunting behavior seems motivated by two separate, competing urges:

  1. Instinct — essentially, cats evolved to pursue prey, and are descended from predators which had to hunt to survive.
  2. Boredom — in other words, your cat just wants to be entertained.

The idea behind the first speaks to cats' place in the feline evolutionary family tree. They may be pets now, but domestic cats share a common ancestor with cheetahs, lions, and ocelots, much like dogs and wolves. It's just natural, in other words.

Hunting may also be a sign cats feel safe and secure, according to the animal-welfare charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

Interestingly, a 2015 study found evidence to suggest house cats have taste preferences when it comes to prey. Even when preferred prey became scarce, cats still went out of their way to hunt these prey over and above any other. The researchers behind this study suggest their results speak to "the predatory efficiency of the house cat."

If your cat is displaying a little too much of this "efficiency," then read on.

A new study suggests a novel way to stop your pet cat hunting.


How do I stop my cat from killing other animals?

In the new study, researchers considered various ways to limit the number of animals pet cats brought back into the home, but only two proved effective.

How they did it — The researchers enlisted 219 cat owners and their 355 feline companions. These pet cats all regularly brought half-dead critters into their home. Most of the cats were split into four groups, each testing a different intervention:

1. Wearing a collar with a bell, or a collar cover while outside.

2. Being fed with a puzzle feeder.

3. Being fed high-meat food.

4. Receiving five to ten minutes of dedicated playtime each day.

There was also a control group of cats which carried on as usual.

Over the course of 12 weeks, cat owners documented how many animals their cat captured, both before and during the intervention period.

Ultimately, only two of the four treatments proved effective: feeding your pet cat plenty of protein, and playing with them more.

“By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom,” Robbie McDonald, a professor at the University of Exeter and co-author of the study, explains in a statement.

Digging into the details — To understand why play and diet may have such an affect on pet cats' behavior, it is worth taking time to go over exactly what the study asked owners to do with their fur babies.

In the play group, owners were asked to simulate hunting by playing with their cat using a feather toy on a string. The researchers found taking just 5 to 10 minutes every day to play with your cat so that they could play at stalking, chasing, and pouncing on the toy, as well as giving the cats time to play themselves with a toy mouse immediately after the teaser toy to mimic an actual kill, diminished the number of real animals which ended up dead in owners' houses — or on their doorstep — by 25 percent.

As some pet cats have been documented killing more than 11 prey animals every month, cutting the number by a quarter could make a significant difference in owners' relationships with their pets.

Encouraging play is one way to help prevent cats from hunting wildlife.

Martina Ceccheti

For the diet intervention, the results were even more striking. Felines fed grain-free, high-meat and protein-rich diets saw an even greater drop-off in the number of gruesome presents. Overall, these cats reduced the number of animals they brought back by 36 percent on average.

As to why meaty foods led to the fall in captured prey, the scientists aren’t yet sure. In a statement, Martina Cecchetti, a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter and co-author on the study, speculates it may be to do with nutritional deficiency. If a cat is “deficient in one or more micronutrients,” she says, it may be this is what is “prompting them to hunt.”

In future studies, the researchers hope to investigate whether supplementing non-meat-based food with specific micronutrients can reduce hunting. They also want to explore whether marrying two different strategies, like play and a meat-based diet, could tamp down hunting behavior in pet cats even more.

Why it matters — The study offers two ways to stop pet cats from hunting, but it also speaks to the lack of research backing two of the most popular hunting deterrents on the market: noisy and/or colorful collars, and puzzle feeders.

In this study, these interventions did little to stop the cats murderous rampage. Bells had no effect on diminishing the number of kills, which the scientists suspect means the cats learned to hunt successfully without making noise. Brightly-hued collars, meanwhile, did fair a little better in that they reduced the number of birds caught by cats (by 42 percent), but they had no affect on the number of non-avian animals killed.

Puzzle feeders, a device intended to be brain-teasers for cats to access food, actually increased cats' desire to hunt by 33 percent, potentially because these frustrating toys actually made the cats hungrier.

In the contiguous United States alone, domestic cats attack between 1 and 4 billion birds and as many as 22 million other mammals. According to a 2013 study in Nature Communications, free-ranging cats are “the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals.”

To be fair, a large number of those deaths are at the paws of feral cats and their hunting is a means of survival. But hunting isn’t necessary for domesticated cats which have access to food at home. Training pet cats to be less interested in hunting live animals could help lessen their harm to the environment.

Abstract: Predation by domestic cats Felis catus can be a threat to biodiversity conservation,1, 2, 3 but its mitigation is controversial.4 Confinement and collar-mounted devices can impede cat hunting success and reduce numbers of animals killed,5 but some owners do not wish to inhibit what they see as natural behavior, perceive safety risks associated with collars, or are concerned about device loss and ineffectiveness.6,7 In a controlled and replicated trial, we tested novel, non-invasive interventions that aim to make positive contributions to cat husbandry, alongside existing devices that impede hunting. Households where a high meat protein, grain-free food was provided, and households where 5–10 min of daily object play was introduced, recorded decreases of 36% and 25%, respectively, in numbers of animals captured and brought home by cats, relative to controls and the pre-treatment period. Introduction of puzzle feeders increased numbers by 33%. Fitting Birdsbesafe collar covers reduced the numbers of birds captured and brought home by 42% but had no discernible effect on mammals. Cat bells had no discernible effect. Reductions in predation can be made by non-invasive, positive contributions to cat nutrition and behavior that reduce their tendency to hunt, rather than impede their hunting. These measures are likely to find support among cat owners who are concerned about the welfare implications of other interventions.

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