How to make cats hunt less: Play with them more often, give them meatier food

EXETER, England — Cat owners who find that their pet frequently brings a bounty of freshly-caught rodents to the house may need to give some more attention to their beloved feline. That’s because cats hunt less if their owners play with them every day and feed them meaty foods, according to one study.

Researchers at the University of Exeter say that cats that played with their owners for just five or 10 minutes each day brought home 25 percent less prey. Even more effective, their research shows, is introducing a premium commercial food with meat proteins. This reduces the number of prey animals brought home by more than a third (36 percent).

Give cats a meatier diet, and they’ll hunt less

Lisa George, one of the British participants, was astonished to see the changes in her 3-year-old tabby cat, Minnie, who took part in the trial.

“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 says in a statement. “On changing Minnie’s food, previously supermarket-own brand, to another one (with more meat) 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 behavior.”

Researchers say it is not clear what elements of the meaty food brings about the reduction in hunting.

“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,” says Martina Cecchetti, a PhD student who conducted the experiments. “However meat production raises clear climate and environmental issues, so one of our next steps is to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting. We also plan to investigate whether different kinds of play have different effects, and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even further.”

A problem for cat owners near and far

Hunting by cats is a conservation and welfare concern, but methods to reduce this are controversial and often rely on restricting cat behavior in ways many owners find unacceptable.

“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,” says study co-author Robbie McDonald, a professor at the University of Exeter, in a media release. “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.”

The study was based on a three-month trial of 355 cats in 219 households in southwest England. Researchers had owners simulate hunting by moving feather toys on a string so cats could stalk, chase and pounce. Owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each “hunt” mimicking a real kill.

The authors also examined the effect of existing devices used to limit hunting by cats. Colorful “Birdsbesafe” collar covers reduced numbers of birds captured and brought home by 42 percent, but had no effect on hunting of prey. Cat bells also had no discernible overall effect, although the researchers say the impact on individual cats varied widely, suggesting some learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell.

“This latest study we have funded is excellent news for birds,” says George Bradley, from SongBird Survival, which sponsored the study. “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.”

Dr Adam Grogan, Head of Wildlife at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in England, also welcomes the study results. “The RSPCA cares for both cats and wild animals and we want to provide advice to cat owners that will benefit both cat and wild animal welfare,” he says. “This project provides us with alternatives for cat owners that are simple and effective and so easy to adopt.”

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.