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Herding cats

Finally, some good news for cat lovers – scientists have discovered how owners can significantly reduce their felines’ lust for hunting. It’s not only deceptively simple but good for them too: feed them meat and play with them more. Feeding domestic cats a quality protein, grain-free diet reduced the number of prey they brought home by 36% and just 5–10 minutes of play each day eased predation by 25%. The large-scale study was published in the journal Current Biology.

“By making a positive contribution to cats, by enhancing diet and by providing behavioural enrichment in the form of play, we were able to reduce the cats’ tendencies to go and hunt wildlife,” says senior author Robbie McDonald from the University of Exeter, UK.

“This differs from previous measures, which in one way or another inhibit the cats’ hunting success. So, for owners who consider outdoor access to be indispensable, this provides a means of reducing their cat’s impact on wildlife.”

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are one of the world’s most invasive species, responsible for killing billions of birds, small mammals and reptiles every year and posing a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.

While the best solution so far has been to keep them indoors, this is contentious in many countries such as New Zealand and the UK – less so in Australia.

Having reviewed the drivers of hunting behaviour in domestic cats, McDonald’s team set out to test positive and acceptable ways to engage their owners and reduce wildlife predation.

They recruited 219 households in southwest England for a 12-week trial with 355 cats that regularly hunted and brought wild animals home.

The cats were allocated to different novel treatments (change in food, play, puzzle feeder), a Birdbesafe collar cover, bell, or control group to account for seasonal variation in wild prey availability. Before and after comparisons were done to account for individual variation – some cats are more avid hunters than others.

Giving cats meat was driven by concerns that existing diets are nutritionally inadequate. “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy,” says first author Martina Cecchetti, “and it is possible that despite forming a ‘complete diet’ these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients – prompting them to hunt.”

In the “play” group, owners dangled a feather toy on a string and wand each day for cats to stalk, chase and pounce on, and gave them a mouse-like toy to play with after each “hunt” to mimic a real kill.

Puzzle feeders had the opposite than desired effect, increasing the cats’ appetite for hunting. The researchers aren’t sure why, but suggest they may have been hungrier if they struggled to use them.

Cat bells were useless overall although there was wide variation, possibly because some cats learn to hunt silently with the bell. The Birdbesafe collar reduced the number of birds they brought back by 42% – but unfortunately it didn’t spare mammals.

Next, the team will explore whether specific micronutrients added to food could reduce hunting without giving them as much meat, as well as different types of play and its combined benefits with diet. Stay tuned!

Related reading: House that feline