Reason #488 To Keep Your Cats Indoors: They Hunt Whether They’re Hungry Or Not

A new study from the UK debunks the claim that cats need access to the outdoors to supplement their diets with wild kills.

Cats who spend a significant amount of time outdoors and regularly kill local wildlife still get 96 percent of their nutrition from meals provided by their humans, according to research by a team at the University of Exeter.

The scientists connected with cat owners through ads on social media, TV and in print publications, specifically seeking out “cat owners living throughout southwest England whose cats regularly captured wild animals and brought them back to the house,” the study’s authors said.

They gave the owners a questionnaire to collect some basic information on the kitties — age, sex, breed, whether they had unrestricted access to the outdoors, and how much time they spend outside — then split the 90 participating cats into six groups.

Cat hunting
A domestic tabby cat stalking in the grass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To set a baseline, the scientists trimmed small sections of whisker from each of the cats, then trimmed a second sample at the end of the study.

By comparing stable isotope ratios in the whisker samples, they were able to determine what the cats were eating. Despite regular access to the outdoors and successful hunts, pet food accounted for the vast majority of their diets.

As a result, the researchers concluded, outdoor cats hunt because they’re driven by predatory instinct, not hunger.

“When food from owners is available, our study shows that cats rely almost entirely on this for nutrition,” said Martina Cecchetti, the study’s lead author.

“Some owners may worry about restricting hunting because cats need nutrition from wild prey, but in fact, it seems even prolific hunters don’t actually eat much of the prey they catch,” Cecchetti said. “As predators, some cats may hunt instinctively even if they are not hungry – so-called ‘surplus killing’ – to capture and store prey to eat later.”

A second component of the study was designed to find the best mitigation strategy to change the behavior of outdoor cats.

Each group was given a different strategy: In one group, cats were outfitted with bells on their collars, while another group wore reflective break-away collars and cats from a third group were fitted with BirdBeSafe collars. The other groups were told to make habit changes inside the home. For example, one set of cats was fed a higher-protein diet without grain filler, another group was fed with puzzle feeders, and the last group was given extra interactive play time.

While high-protein diets and play time helped cut down on hunting, the BirdBeSafe collars had the biggest impact on hunting success. The collars come in bright colors designed to stand out to avian eyes, taking away stealth and the element of surprise from cats.

The study was sponsored by Songbird Survival, a British non-profit that funds bird conservation research and looks for ways to mitigate the dwindling numbers of many avian species.

Susan Morgan, Songbird Survival’s executive director, said her group hopes cat owners will do their part to help: “Pet owners can help us reverse the shocking decline in songbirds via three simple, ‘win-win’ steps: fit collars with a Birdsbesafe cover; feed cats a premium meaty diet; play with cats for five to ten minutes a day to ‘scratch that itch’ to hunt.”

Of course there’s an obvious solution the study didn’t include: Keeping cats indoors. While keeping cats indoors is common in the US, cat ownership culture in the UK is different — another subject for another post.

Read the full text of the study here. Header image credit Pexels. Body images credit BeSafeCollar.

Previously:

1024px-Florida_panther_kittens
A pair of young mountain lions in Florida. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/WOConservation

4 thoughts on “Reason #488 To Keep Your Cats Indoors: They Hunt Whether They’re Hungry Or Not”

  1. 1) I read a study in the 1990s that said, in answer to the question “Wiil keeping my cat hungry make him a better hunter of mice?” that cats which are fed are actually *better* hunters than cats that are weakened by starvation.
    2) I read in 2014 that the greatest impact on the population of urban birds was *destruction of habitat* , not predation by house cats as had been formerly believed. Humans, look to your own actions and don’t find a scapegoat.

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    1. The “scientists” who blame cats for bird extirpation are undoubtedly aware that human activity, especially habitat destruction, is the major factor, but it’s a lot easier taking on cat owners and killing strays than it is to fight development, get politicians to reserve huge stretches of land for wildlife, etc.

      Developers and big corps have deep pockets and make campaign contributions, while cat rescues and TNR groups don’t have those kind of resources.

      Meanwhile many of my colleagues in the media are scientifically illiterate, credulous and/or lazy, so the moment something is reported in a study, it becomes “fact” and is reported in news media without question. There have been scathing critiques by other scientists pointing out the many flaws in the widely cited studies that claim cats kill birds by the tens of billions annually, and even that hasn’t stopped the credulous reporting.

      I don’t know what the situation is in the UK, but general scientific illiteracy is a major indictment of the US education system, and we’re seeing it manifest in tragic ways these days with the pandemic. But it also exists in the general credulity of people who treat science as a religion as opposed to a tool we use to slowly chip away at our own ignorance.

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  2. I think John Q is convinced of the veracity of almost anything they see on the news or in print. Social media has reinforced this conviction by not requiring source data for all claims, outlandish or not. I can claim 94.6% of all US cats kill on average 6.2 birds every month. Now I just pulled those numbers out of the air. But if it’s worded well and aired somewhere, it becomes fact. Ignorance is stupid.

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    1. I agree, especially about social media’s role in helping the spread of misinformation, but there’s no excuse for news media repeating that stuff. Journalists have to be better than that, otherwise what function are they serving?

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