Can we manage our cats’ hunting instincts?

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01 April 2021
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Dr Lauren explores a study that aimed to find out differing attitudes of owners towards cats' hunting and roaming behaviours.

Each month, leading cat welfare scientist Dr Lauren Finka is delving into the latest research into felines and breaking it down for us everyday cat owners. In this month’s article, Dr Finka focuses on a recent study looking at the differing attitudes of owners towards their cats’ hunting and roaming behaviours — and their management.

When it comes to managing your cat, are you a ‘Concerned Protector’, a ‘Freedom Defender’ or a ‘Laissez-faire Landlord’?
Dr Lauren explains all…

Allowing cats to roam 

As a nation, it’s fair to say that we are perhaps paying more attention to and generally thinking about our cats and their management more than ever before. 

Many of us have also become much more aware of the daily routines of our cats, including when and where they prefer to sleep through the day and the times they prefer to be outdoors. With the huge increase in demand for pets during the pandemic, many newly-acquired cats will have started to venture outside, exploring their new territories for the first time. 

Owners of previously indoor-only cats or those with restricted outdoor access might have also started letting their cats go outdoors more, perhaps because working from home has enabled owners to feel they can manage this more safely. Some cats will not have coped well with all the extra activity in the home during the pandemic and many owners might have recognised the benefits to such cats of providing them with regular outdoor access. This outdoor access will have helped these more sensitive souls to have quality time and space away from the commotions of the family home. However, the decisions around allowing cats to roam outdoors are complex. While freedom to roam may benefit aspects of the cat’s physical and mental well-being, they also pose possible risks to the cat’s safety, as well as that of local wildlife. 

Recent research looked at owners’ attitudes towards this hunting as part of a wider project to see if feline hunting could be managed to reduce impact on wildlife. (See box above right for information about the aims of the study.)

Who conducted the study? When was it published?

This study was carried out by Dr Crowley, Dr Cecchetti, and Dr McDonald from the University of Exeter, and was published in the journal ‘Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment’ in 2020. The research forms part of a larger project which has the following aims:

Understand how owners feel about their cats’ hunting behaviour and whether they feel any responsibility to manage this.

To scientifically assess the effectiveness of different methods aimed to reduce hunting, focusing on both traditional (such as attaching bells to collars and keeping cats in overnight) and more novel (such as playing more with cats and changing feeding regimes and diet) strategies. 

Understand how cat owners feel about different cat management options, the impact they may have on their cats’ behaviour and welfare, and how practical they might be to implement. 

To seek input from and work with a range of different expert groups including International CatCare, the RSPCA, and Songbird Survival. 

Cats will hunt different types of wildlife.

Feline impact on wildlife

Not all cats are necessarily voracious predators (I remember my late cat Barry giving only the briefest of acknowledgements to a rat as it boldly sauntered past in the garden). However, the majority may opportunistically try to catch many of the little critters found in our gardens and neighbourhoods. 

Humans are undoubtedly the greatest global threat to wildlife, but cats are also considered to have a sizeable negative impact on local wildlife populations. This may be of particular concern in parts of the world where there are very endangered or fragile wildlife populations (usually species of birds and small mammals), especially where these species have not evolved alongside cat-like predators, meaning it is hard for them to adapt their behaviour to avoid being caught and eaten. 

The UK is home to millions of cat lovers that value their cats’ freedom to roam, but at the same time, there are also millions of nature lovers that value the UK’s wildlife, creating potential conflict between the needs of cats and the protection of other animals. 

The management of domestic cat populations in order to help limit their negative impact on wildlife is therefore complex, and in the case of owned pet cats, relies heavily on the engagement and cooperation of owners. It is really important to understand the views and concerns of owners if effective solutions that benefit wildlife — but at the same do not negatively impact on cat well-being — are to be reached. 

The best solutions are likely to involve people with different perspectives and priorities communicating and working together. Solutions should also be assessed scientifically for their benefits to wildlife but also considered in terms of their practicality for owners to implement and their potential impacts on the cats’ well-being. This need for better understanding was the premise for the recent study that sought to investigate the different opinions of UK cat owners concerning their cat’s roaming and hunting behaviours. 

Birds are at risk from cats.

What did the study do? 

In an initial study, conducted the previous year, the authors interviewed 48 UK cat owners about their cat’s hunting and roaming behaviour, whether the owners tried to manage this, and if so, what strategies they used. These owners were recruited to the study through various means (including leaflets, email lists, and social media) in order to obtain a diverse sample of people with different options, from farmers to cat breeders. 

From these interviews and other news sources, the authors identified a series of 62 statements that represented a range of different owner opinions on the topic. These statements were then presented to the same cat owners who were then asked to rank the statements based on how much they agreed or disagreed with them. 

 

What were the main findings of the study?

From these rankings, the authors were able to identify five main owner perspectives on their cat’s A) roaming and outdoor access, B) hunting behaviours, and C) how they should be managed. These helped to categorise owners into the following types: 

Concerned Protectors that focus on their cat’s safety 

Freedom Defenders that prioritise cat independence and oppose any restrictions on their behaviour 

Tolerant Guardians who believe outdoor access is important for cats but dislike that their cats hunt 

Conscientious Caretakers that support outdoor access but feel some responsibility for managing their cats’ hunting

Laissez-faire Landlords that are largely unaware of the issues surrounding cat’s roaming and hunting

Why is this study useful?

Where efforts are being made to try to reduce the predatory impact of cats on local wildlife, understanding more about the diverse ways that owners may think about and want to manage their cats is essential to success. 

Although the study suggests that most owners may view their cat’s hunting behaviour as a negative, some owners may be much more receptive to proposed ways of managing their cat’s hunting behaviours than others. A one-size fits all approach may therefore be ineffective and advice to cat owners to permanently confine their cats indoors to prevent hunting is unlikely to be adhered to. For example, the Concerned Protector may need little encouragement to significantly restrict their cat’s outdoor access or to cat-proof their gardens (but more because this keeps the cat safe rather than before it protects wildlife), while the Freedom Defenders may be much less receptive to any forms of restriction, and the Tolerant Guardians somewhere in between these types. 

Both Tolerant Guardians and Conscious Caretakers shared concerns about risks to wildlife but also thought outdoor access was important for cats. These owners might therefore be most receptive to implementing other strategies, such as increased play with cats and changes to their environment and feeding regimes. 

As the study only interviewed a relatively small number of owners, it’s important to bear in mind that these five main perspectives may not represent all of us. The authors highlight the need for further research to better understand how owners’ characteristics and lifestyles might influence their opinions and ways of managing their cats. 

How can I help to protect local wildlife but also keep my cat happy?

It’s likely impossible to completely diminish your cat’s desire to hunt, especially if he or she is of the extreme predator variety.  However, there are various cat-friendly strategies that you can try, in order to curb their hunting habits somewhat (some of these might appeal more or less to you, depending on which type of owner you are!):

Keeping cats indoors also helps to keep them safe.

Provide your cat with a stimulating, indoor and outdoor environment:

This is a must for all cats, but especially those that are very active, inquisitive, or predatory. Potentially, the more enriching your cat’s indoor and outdoor spaces, the more likely they are to focus their attention on things other than prey, as well as being more inclined to stay local. 

Hunting style games can help fulfil felines’ instinct to hunt.

Indoor fun: 

Encourage your cat to play and ensure sessions are exciting by regularly changing the toys you use. Wand and fishing rod type toys work well and can be moved in a way to closely mimic the movements of prey (in short rapid bursts along the ground for mice and quick darting movements in the air for birds or insects). 

When playing with your cat, allow them to ‘catch’ and ‘kill’ their toys during each session, enabling them to unleash as much of their predatory sequence as possible. 

Try putting your cat’s usual food into puzzle feeders and rotating between a few different types of feeder. Some cats may take longer than others to get the hang of these, so start with some easy ones and then gradually increase their difficulty! Puzzle feeders can be used for both wet and dry food and come in both static and moveable varieties.

Outdoor entertainment:

Stimulate your cat’s senses by providing a range of cat-friendly plants and place a bit of furniture or shelving in the garden at different levels to add extra dimensions.

Try taking your cat’s favourite wand toy and playing with them in the garden. You could also try teaching your cat a recall, rewarding them with a treat each time they come, or simply chucking treats around the garden for them to hunt and ‘catch’. These strategies may be particularly good to keep your cat sufficiently stimulated, but distracted, during their peak hunting times.

Identifying peak hunting times and prey preferences:

Try to get a sense of the times of day your cat is most likely to hunt. While your cat may have their specific prey preferences, UK studies suggest that in general, small mammals, followed by birds, are the most frequently caught types. These species are usually most active at dusk and dawn, therefore your cat may be more motivated to hunt at these times.

Ensure your cat has plenty to do indoors and outdoors during peak hunting times. For example, keep their puzzle feeders filled with food, provide them with interactive toys, or be ready to keep them entertained with play-time in the garden.

Managing outdoor access:

You could try confining your cat indoors at the above times, although bear in mind some cats will cope with this better than others. If you do keep them in, ensure there is plenty to keep them occupied. 

There is now a super high-tech catflap (made by Sureflap) on the market that can be remotely controlled from your phone — this may provide a very practical way to limit outdoor access at certain times of the day, but otherwise allow your cat to come and go as they please. 

Using cat-proof fencing so that your cat is unable to leave the perimeter of your garden may help to ease any safety concerns you may have about letting your cat roam outside, while simultaneously limiting their access to local habitats used by wildlife. However, particularly if your cat is the high energy, active type, ensure your garden is as exciting and stimulating for them as possible to prevent boredom and frustration. 

Using a collar and bell:

There is some evidence to suggest that attaching a bell to your cat’s collar may reduce their success of catching both birds and small mammals. Some cats may tolerate having a bell tinkling in their ears whenever they move better than others (although scientifically we don’t really know the impacts of this on cat behaviour and welfare), so consider whether this is something that your cat is likely to cope well with. If using a collar on your cat, ensure it has a quick-release feature on it.

The right diet can help curb cats’ hunting instinct.

Providing correct nutrition and sufficient variety:

Cats that are fed good quality cat foods, complete with all the nutrients they require, may be less likely to want to top up their diets with the local wildlife. Additionally, a well-fed cat may be less motivated to go out hunting, or at least to kill or consume their prey. Try feeding your cat small, regular meals, or letting them have free, constant access to dry food, ideally in puzzle feeders.

While we may tend to feed our cats the same food for each meal, most cats actually thrive on variety. The more variety in their daily meals, the less likely they may be to go out looking for more exciting things to munch on. Try providing a range of flavours, shapes, and textures for both their wet and dry food portions, although watch that their tummies are OK with any dietary changes you make.

Choosing the right cat:

If you are thinking of acquiring a new cat but you live in an area with a lot of wildlife and important habitats, consider choosing an older, less energetic cat that is less likely to roam far and/or one with a history suggesting minimal interest (or success) in hunting.

Ensure your cat is neutered to reduce their desire to roam and to limit cat local population sizes. 

MORE INFO:

For more information on managing your cat’s hunting instincts, the following web sites may be very helpful:

icatcare.org/understanding-the-hunting-behaviour-of-pet-cats-an-introduction/

www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/animal-deterrents/cats-and-garden-birds/

For more information about the study, the authors have put together a really useful document providing information about their work, its aims, and approaches, visit: 

https://wildlifescience.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/CatProject2019.pdf

Published study reference. 

Crowley SL, Cecchetti M, McDonald RA. Diverse perspectives of cat owners indicate barriers to and opportunities for managing cat predation of wildlife. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2020 Dec;18(10):544-9.