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article imageEssential Science: Can a cat’s hunting ways be tamed?

By Tim Sandle     Feb 15, 2021 in Science
For cat owners worried about the threat that the domestic feline poses to all manner of wildlife (and especially to birds), a new study finds that the wilder site of cats can be tamed through diet and exercise.
The key finding from the research is that domestic cats will hunt for wildlife less often, provided their ‘owners’ play with at least once per day and provide high-quality cat food. With food, this is with a food that a cat will find especially tasty, as with meat-rich varieties of pet food.
Cats (Felis catus) have long been valued by humans for companionship and for their ability to hunt vermin and, over time, came to be taken on as household pets. These days few people keep cats to kill wildlife, most people seek cats for mutual social interaction. There are even cases of life saving exploits, such as alerting humans to carbon monoxide leaks.
A cat called Gizmo.
A cat called Gizmo.
READ MORE: Cats are securely bonded to their people
Yet the wildlife aspect remains a concern, given there are over 500 million cats in the world. A 2013 study, reported on by National Geographic, estimated free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds in the U.S. alone (a figure that includes feral as well as domesticated cats). The figure in Australia was reported by Digital Journal to be around one million birds per day.
This is the basis of the new study – how can cat owners buck this trend? There are ways that are cruel to cats (such as removing claws) or border on the unnatural for the cat, such as an excessive restriction of behaviour. Moreover, collars, devices and other deterrents have been found to be largely ineffective.
Two cats get ready to fight.
Two cats get ready to fight.
The research looked at two elements: food and play. Data was drawn across a twelve week trial of 355 cats located in 219 households across south-west England.
Starting with the food approach, researchers at the University of Exeter have discovered that introducing a premium commercial food, formulated in a way that essential proteins derive from meat can significantly lower the number of prey animals that cats will bring home. Comparative studies found the number of animals brought home by cats can fall by 36 percent if the cat is fed premium food.
Many cat foods contain protein from plant sources like soy. It is thought such foods leave cats deficient in essential micronutrients, which triggers the urge to hunt. A more balanced, meat based protein food counteracts this urgency. Cats require high protein diets, including many water-soluble B vitamins (e.g., niacin), vitamin A, vitamin D, arginine, taurine, methionine, cysteine and some essential fatty-acids.
The British researchers also discovered that active play between the owner and a cat also reduces the urge to kill wild animals. Here just five to ten minutes of daily play led to a 25 percent reduction in wild animals being caught and killed. For the research, a feather toy on a string was used. This enabled cats to ‘work through’ their instincts by stalking, chasing and pouncing. Maximum effect was achieved if a cat was given a soft toy to play with after hunting. Overall, the combination of mental and physical stimulation deriving predatory-like play satisfied many cats drive to hunt.
A cat called Stripey.
A cat called Stripey.
Indeed earlier research has suggested that many cats will still put human interaction, under the right conditions, above food of playing with toys. The more a cat interacts with people, the more domesticated she becomes.
Comparative measures like fitting cats with collars with a bell, or with a Birdsbesafe collar cover, were found to be mostly ineffective in terms of the cat-to-kill ratio.
Tim Sandle with his cat called Stripe.
Tim Sandle with his cat called Stripe.
ALSO READ: Why are cats antisocial? It's actually down to you
According to the lead scientist, Professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute, by deploying non-invasive, non-restrictive methods owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.
The research is published in the journal Current Biology, where the academic paper is titled "Provision of High Meat Content Food and Object Play Reduce Predation of Wild Animals by Domestic Cats Felis catus."
A cat called Gizmo spots something of interest.
A cat called Gizmo spots something of interest.
The reseach was sponsored by nature advocacy group Song Bird Survival. The cat food was from one manufacturer, called Lily’s Kitchen.
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series, where new research items relating to wider science stories of interest are presented by Dr. Tim Sandle on a weekly basis.
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