- Reducing Your Cat's Need to Hunt
- High-Meat, Grain-Free Food Reduces Cats' Hunting, Scientists Say
- How Do I Stop My Cat from Killing Birds and Other Wildlife?
- More Meat, Less Hunting
“Fed cats don’t hunt.” That’s what many cat owners believe. Some go so far as to say it’s wrong to deny their cats time in the Great Outdoors, or restrict them from hunting (a natural behavior, by the way).
All the while, research shows that cats’ habit of killing birds and other small animals has serious consequences like species extinctions.
For a long time, animal lovers have tried to mitigate the damage without restricting their feline friends’ freedoms. But this contradiction leaves many cat owners wondering, “How to stop my cat from killing birds?” Luckily, researchers may have just discovered that the pet’s diet lies at the center of its killer instincts.
Reducing Your Cat’s Need to Hunt
The management of free-ranging or feral cats is contentious. Cats devastate small mammal and bird populations. One of their worst effects is the extinction of several species, most notably the loss of 33 bird species, among other animals.
Still, some cat owners believe that hunting is a natural, essential aspect of their pets' lives. Because of this, many refuse to keep their cats inside, believing it restricts the animal's instinctual behaviors, and, by extension, their wellbeing.
Must-Reads from Catzio
"I think the answer cannot be easily simplified or summarized," wrote University of Exeter Ph.D. student, Martina Cecchetti, in an email. "[T]his perception is culturally and socially variable. Secondly, the domestic cats share a long-standing history with humans, developed and diversified over thousands of years through a dynamic symbiosis…. Cats are considered pest-controllers in many ecological contexts and therefore many owners consider such behavior as natural, as this is one of the reasons that has acted in shaping the cat-human relationship. Moreover, many people are not aware about the threat that cats impose upon wild fauna."
Contrary to some beliefs, cats can certainly live fulfilling lives indoors. Just a few key lifestyle adjustments can make sure of that.
High-Meat, Grain-Free Reduces Cats’ Hunting, Scientists Say
Cecchetti’s recent study showed that cats that eat meaty, grain-free diets hunted 36% less than they did on previous diets. This is interesting, given how many people believe "fed cats don't hunt."
This tagline has been a big part of the heated outdoor cat debate. Some think regular feeding can prevent unwanted hunting. But research has repeatedly proven that to be false.
"Owners are… more aware about the possibility of introducing environmental enrichment strategies in the home environment for…. [H]unting behavior is natural, but it's harmful to wild fauna, so it's important [to find] solutions [and design] strategies to fulfill it in the home environment."
Martina Cecchetti, Ph.D. student, University of Exeter
Cecchetti's latest research may be key to developing those strategies. It may have yielded new evidence showing that a high-protein diet may reduce cats’ hunting—but not stop it completely.
Playtime also influences cat hunting. Cecchetti and colleagues studied households where cats had at least 5-10 minutes of daily object play. Those that ate meaty, high-protein diets hunted about 25% less.
Generally, it’s pretty easy to keep cats from killing birds and provide it a fulfilling life indoors. Even small things like Birdsbesafe cat collars can help save wildlife. This very measure reduced cats’ tendency to hunt birds by 42%.
Why do these small changes make such big impacts on cat hunting? The answer lies in cats' ancestral feeding patterns.
The Monotony Effect: Sprucing up a Cat’s Diet
Your cat is an obligate carnivore, meaning it can only survive on a diet made almost entirely of meat. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so keen on hunting. So, feeding your cat a plant-based diet is out of the question since its body lacks the systems necessary for breaking down plant material.
Despite having spent thousands of years by humanity's side, cats still prefer several small meals a day, each being mostly made up of animal protein. But the "monotony effect" might increase its interest in hunting.
Imagine the last time you had a specific meal several times within a relatively short period, such as oatmeal for breakfast or a chicken dinner. When this goes on for too long, most people would say they’re getting “bored” of the taste. You’d want something new for your palate. John W.S. Bradshaw defines this as the "monotony effect." When this happens to your cat, it’ll look for better-tasting, more nutritional alternatives.
Still “sensory characteristics are one of the primary reasons why your cat might hunt instead of eating at home. Although hunting isn’t ideal, it’s the natural way of making up for nutritional deficiencies from a monotonous or limited diet—even for domesticated cats.
Cecchetti says that, thus far, most scientists haven’t considered it important to fulfill cats’ physiological and behavioral needs when managing hunting behavior, in particular. The new study may change that.
"From our study, we can deduce that cats may hunt more because they are stimulated to address some deficiency in their provisioned food, probably something small such as a micronutrient, which is fulfilled by a meaty diet."
How Do I Stop My Cat from Killing Birds and Other Wildlife?
Cecchetti and colleagues contacted cat owners whose pets regularly hunted and brought their prey back home. These cats then participated in a "before-after-control-impact design." The main methods used to prevent cat predation (another word for hunting) were as follows:
- Inhibitory: This method consists of fitting cats with collars with a bell, such as the Birdsbesafe collar.
- Novel: This technique comprised of feeding cats using a puzzle feeder. Foods include commercial, grain-free food with meat as the principal protein source. Another novel approach includes five to ten minutes of daily object play.
To determine whether the treatments were truly improving the cats' hunting habits, the researchers counted how many animals each cat brought home.
More than 200 homes hosting 355 cats participated in the study over 12 weeks. Cat owners using the “novel” treatment reduced their pets' wildlife impacts significantly. Hunting by cats that received meaty, high-protein diets fell by 36%, while cats that enjoyed daily play reduced their hunting by 25%.
However, not all the treatments worked. In particular, swapping out food bowls with puzzle feeders had the opposite effect, as these cats started hunting more by an average of 33%.
It’s not clear why. But experts do know that different behavioral management methods have varying success. The outcomes also depend on the cat’s preferred prey species. For instance, food and play dropped cats' mammal hunting by 33% and 35%, respectively. On the other hand, food and Birdsbesafe collars helped prevent cats’ bird-killing even more, by 44% and 42%, respectively.
Cecchetti suggests that the varying results need further investigation. "It would be interesting exploring different types of play and use of different toys to understand if there can be a targeted reduction of cats' hunting certain species. Moreover, dietary and behavioral drivers of hunting may operate independently, and so it would be valuable to investigate potential additive effects of changes to diet and play."
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that their study "is consistent with the theory" that some cats hunt more often because of nutritional deficiencies.
Unfortunately, not all the cat owners were willing to continue in the behavioral treatment after the study was over. This illustrates the typical stubbornness or “stuck-in-your-ways” behavior in the pet community that may be impeding progress.
More Meat, Less Hunting
Cats have retained an impressive array of physical and behavioral from their ancestors. This is apparent in their lingering, instinctual hunting drive, despite domestication. Sadly, this behavior has ushered many species to their demise, and continues to harm global wildlife.
Until humans agree on how to minimize the ecological damage, scientists are searching for inventive ways to reduce wildlife loss to domestic cat hunting. By merely increasing animal protein in your cat’s diet and daily play, you can prevent it from bringing dead animals home and reduce its harm on wildlife populations.
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.