Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Play With Your Cats and Feed Them Meat to Save Wildlife, Study Advises

Play With Your Cats and Feed Them Meat to Save Wildlife, Study Advises
"By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom," a new study finds. cunfek / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Domestic cats are adorable human companions, but they can have a terrifying impact on birds and other wildlife. Their hunting has contributed to the extinction of 63 birds, mammals and reptiles, and they are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the U.S. and Canada, according to American Bird Conservancy.

Some scientists have cautioned that the panic over cats is overblown, and that their impact on an ecosystem depends on several factors. But to address the ways in which the needs of house cats and wildlife do conflict, scientists at the University of Exeter are researching solutions that will satisfy cat lovers and conservationists alike.

In a new study published in Current Biology Thursday, they found that playing with cats and feeding them quality, meaty food could reduce their kill count outside the home.

"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," study co-author and University of Exeter Environment and Sustainability Institute professor Robbie McDonald said in a press release. "Our study shows that – using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods – owners can change what the cats themselves want to do. By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom."

The researchers worked with 355 cats in 219 homes in southwestern England over a 12 week period. Some of the cats were switched to a no-grain, high meat diet and others had five to 10 minutes of play added to their daily schedule, the study explained. The high meat diet reduced the number of wild animals the cats brought home by 36 percent, while the playtime reduced that number 25 percent, compared both to a control group and to the cats' previous behavior.

High Meat Diet

Cat caretaker Lisa George, whose three-year-old tabby Minnie participated in the study, testified to the difference that diet could make.

"Minnie loves to hunt. More often than not, she will bring her prey home and let it go in the house. We've had birds in the bedroom, rats in the waste paper bin (which took us three days to catch), rabbits in the utility room," George said in the press release. "On changing Minnie's food (previously supermarket own-brand), to Lily's Kitchen, I found she hardly hunted at all. This continued the whole time she was on this food. I can honestly say I couldn't believe the difference as regards her hunting behaviour."

Overall, the researchers found that feeding cats meat reduced their kills of both birds and mammals, according to The Guardian. The researchers are not sure why the meat made such a difference, but suspect it has to do with their highly specific nutritional needs.

"They are unusually needy for some particular nutrients, some amino acids and so on, that are best provided in meat," McDonald told CNN.

Because meat production is linked to the climate crisis and other ecological concerns, study coauthor and University of Exeter Ph.D. student Martina Cecchetti said the next step was to see if the micronutrients cats get from meat could be identified and added to non-meat meals.

Play Time

The play time the cats received was modeled on the length and motions of a real hunt, The Guardian explained. It lasted five to 10 minutes and involved the owners moving a feather on a string that the cats could chase and catch. After their "kill," they were given a toy mouse to play with.

The added play time reduced the cats' mammal kills, but not their bird kills. The researchers think this may be because the play typically occurred at night, when cats hunt for mammals. They typically catch birds in the morning.

The researchers now want to test if more play time would further reduce the cats' hunting, or if a combination of play and meaty meals would have a larger impact.

"We suspect that the two things are working on slightly different pathways, if you like, in the cat's behavior," McDonald told CNN.

Other Measures

The researchers also tested other measures used to protect wildlife from cats, according to the study. The use of puzzle feeders actually increased kills by 33 percent, while the use of Birdsbesafe collars did decrease bird kills by 42 percent, but had no impact on mammal kills. The use of cat bells did not work overall. The researchers said in the press release that their effectiveness depended on the cat, and that some learned to hunt despite them.

The research was greeted with enthusiasm by the conservation and animal welfare groups that helped fund and advise it. Cats kill around 100 million animals a year in the UK, billions in the U.S. and 230 million in Australia, The Guardian pointed out.

"This latest study we have funded is excellent news for birds," George Bradley of SongBird Survival said in the press release. "The data show that cat owners (like me) can make a few small and easy steps to really improve the health and happiness of our pets as well as make a really big difference for all our wildlife, especially our beloved songbirds. Making these easy-to-implement changes will be a win-win for birds, cats and cat owners."

David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less
An Amazon.com Inc. worker walks past a row of vans outside a distribution facility on Feb. 2, 2021 in Hawthorne, California. PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.

Read More Show Less
Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab's sample of the whitest paint on record. Purdue University / Jared Pike

Scientists at the University of Purdue have developed the whitest and coolest paint on record.

Read More Show Less

Less than three years after California governor Jerry Brown said the state would launch "our own damn satellite" to track pollution in the face of the Trump administration's climate denial, California, NASA, and a constellation of private companies, nonprofits, and foundations are teaming up to do just that.

Read More Show Less