More play can reduce predation in free-roaming, outdoor cats

Any cat owner whose pet spends at least some time outdoors has likely been “gifted” with the occasional small bird or mammal left in a feathered or furry mess by the door. Hunting may be an instinctive behavior in cats, but it’s also a concern in terms of wildlife conservation: A cat-tracking study published last year calculated that housecats had 4–10 times the impact on small animals than native predators.

Plus, there’s the “ick” factor. . . .

But if you have clients who allow their cats to roam outside even part of the time, new research from the University of Exeter (UE) suggests that simple changes in activity levels and diet can reduce predation in outdoor cats, which could reassure owners worried about the welfare implications of restricting their cats’ outdoor access.

“Previous research in this area has focused on inhibiting cats’ ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices, and deterrents,” said Robbie A. McDonald, PhD, the study’s corresponding author.

And some research has shown that while those devices may help reduce hunting in cats, they don’t eliminate it entirely. The researchers were curious as to whether other, less-restrictive methods could make a difference.

A professor of wildlife management, animal ecology, and interdisciplinary environmental sciences at UE, McDonald told NEWStat his research shows that owners can change their cats’ hunting behavior using entirely noninvasive, nonrestrictive methods: “By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.”

McDonald and his team found that feeding cats a diet in which proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals that cats brought home by 36%. And 5 to 10 minutes of daily play between cat and owner led to a 25% reduction.

McDonald says they don’t know for sure why eating meat led to a reduction in hunting, and that the effect of play levels on predation was easier to measure: “Essentially, we replicated the hunt-kill sequence.” Owners in the study—based on a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 UK households—simulated a hunting experience by moving a feather toy on a string with a wand so that cats could stalk, chase, and pounce.

As a reward, owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each simulated hunt, thereby mimicking a real kill.

McDonald said that while both a change in diet and activity levels had an effect on cats’ desire to hunt, neither significantly outweighed the other: “Both had comparable effects.” In the study, a diet high in meat protein reduced the number of both birds and mammals that the cats brought home, while play had a more pronounced effect only on the number of mammals the cats brought home.

But McDonald stressed that while a diet rich in meat protein and a dedicated daily playtime that simulates the feline hunting experience can help reduce hunting behavior in outdoor cats, it’s not guaranteed: “The only surefire way of reducing predation, and of reducing cat exposure to a variety of outdoor hazards is to keep them indoors.”

Find out more about caring for cats, regardless of their lifestyle, in the 2021 AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines.

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