New research discovers innovative ways to tame cats' hunting instinct
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House cats are the serial killers of the animal kingdom, they may be charming and cute, but they also do kill billions of victims, often just for the fun of it.
Felis catus aka the domestic cat has a long rap sheet.
Besides the billions of birds and small mammals it snuffs every year, it has over the years also notched up a couple of extinctions and local extinctions.
Included is the Lyall’s wren which disappeared from Stephens Island, in New Zealand, two years after cats were introduced there.
Cat owners have tried to subdue this killer instinct that resides in their pets, but few methods have worked.
But now researchers from the University of Exeter, in the UK believe they have found a simple way of curbing the hunting instinct in moggies.
It all has to do with a bit of play and a change of diet.
They found that by introducing a premium commercial food where protein came from meat the number of prey animals that a cat brought home was reduced by over a third.
Also playing with a cat between five and 10 minutes a day resulted in a 25% reduction in bringing home prey.
"Previous research in this area has focussed on inhibiting cats' ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices and deterrents," said Professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute.
"While keeping cats indoors is the only sure-fire way to prevent hunting, some owners are worried about the welfare implications of restricting their cat's outdoor access.”
He said by playing with their cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.
The study involved a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 households in the south-west of England. The researchers also examined the success of other devices that meant to limit hunting by cats.
Colourful “Birdsbesafe” collars were found to reduce the number of captured birds by 42% but had no effect on hunted mammals.
Interestingly they found that cat bells had no influence in bringing down the number of kills. They suspect that some cats may learn to hunt with the bell.
But weaning the house cat off its killing ways, means introducing a structured kind of play that mimics the hunt.
In the study, owners were asked to move a feather toy on a string and wand so as to allow the cat to stalk, chase and pounce. Owners then had to give the cats a toy mouse to play with after each hunt, so as to mimic a real kill.
As yet the researchers haven’t worked out what in meaty food led to a reduction in hunting behaviour.
"Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, 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," said Martina Cecchetti, who was also involved in the study.
Barbara George, a cat behaviourist based in Cape Town, said that once she was called on to help a cat who had a hunting problem.
“It was a case where the cat had a nutrient deficiency and he needed to eat raw meat. And once he got fed raw meat he was fine. He still caught but he didn't kill anything,” says George, who was not involved in the study.
The problem, says George, is that cats will hunt even if they are properly fed. “They need to hunt," she says.
The majority of cats George sees have behavioural issues.
“It is either stress, boredom or territory. Boredom is a big thing and it is related to food because your natural cat spends most of its day looking for food. So they are using their minds and bodies to get this food,” George says. “But our cats are just walking up to a bowl of food to eat and what do they do for the rest of the day.”
To help alleviate this boredom George gets the cats to “hunt”. She sets up puzzles that they have to solve so as to find their food.
The researchers will continue in their quest to find ways of stopping cats from killing.
"We also plan to investigate whether different kinds of play have different effects, and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even further,"says Cecchetti.