Cats! We love them! Especially when they are our own. However, as much as we all love them there is a downside to having these furry companions as part of our lives. Most of us can identify with the following scenario: The cat has been fed and then goes outdoors to explore and play, he/she will then return proudly with their latest hunting trophy. The trophy is often found in the middle of the living room, behind the couch, as an unpleasant surprise on the bedsheets in the morning, or discovered by strange rattling sounds in the kitchen cupboard. In the most dire situation, you’ll get struck by a rotten smell that suddenly appears out of nowhere. Trophies are not always brought back dead, the ones that arrive alive transform the cat owner into the hunter as they try to pry it out of the most inaccessible corner of the house where it cannot be removed from. While this behavior is considered totally natural for our little furry friends it does have considerable consequences, not just for our peace of mind as cat owners but for the wildlife population as well.
A brief history of cats
Cats started to live voluntarily among humans around 10,000 years ago. As villages grew and farming became more efficient, food sources were created attracting rodents. Naturally, this drew cats to the villages and nearby grain silos to hunt the prolific rodent population. Over thousands of years, cats chose to form relationships with humans which were mutually beneficial. Their excellent hunting skills made them very useful on ships and in barns as they were very effective at keeping the rodent and general vermin population in check.
Why do domestic cats hunt?
Cats are the most highly developed carnivorous hunters of all mammals. Today's domestic cats have the same posture as tigers and lions and are even more agile than big cats. As natural-born predators and in order to survive in the wild it is essential for cats to be self-sufficient and hunt their own food. A limited amount of prey meant that only the most successful hunters survived and flourished.
Domestic cats possess the same hunting skills as their big cat relatives, such as lions and tigers, and the same instinctive desire to hunt. Quite simply, it is a natural part of their genetic makeup that was inherited from their ancestors. It is common for cat owners to become frustrated when their perfectly nourished cat goes out hunting for food that they do not need. Hunger plays no role in a domestic cat's desire to go outdoors and hunt, however they seem to derive great pleasure and stimulation from this activity.
Cat hunting has a serious effect on biodiversity, so it is not only the unpleasantness of noticing your cat playing with its prey in the middle of the night that needs to be considered. What would seem to be a fairly harmless activity by our cats has a big impact on nature. Predation by domestic cats on wildlife is one of the best-documented phenomena in this sector, although the calculation of concrete figures should be treated with caution as complete statistics are not always available.
In 2010, a study was carried out in a small village in Switzerland to determine how many successful cat hunts occurred over a period of one month. By studying these statistics, researchers deduced that in Switzerland, approximately 100,000 - 300,000 birds are killed by cats every month.
It is scary to see the number of small mammals that are killed by cats; A study in 2013 calculated that up to 22.3 billion small mammals are killed by cats in the United States every year. More recent studies have shown that 2.4 billion birds are also killed annually in the United States. Hence, our little furry friends are lethal predators causing biodiversity to suffer, even to the point of threatening the extinction of a variety of animal species.
With more than an estimated 220 million domesticated cats around the world, it is suggested that cats are the largest cause of mortality for birds in highly populated areas. The number of cat adoptions has been steadily growing since 2010 but through the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of domestic cats has increased dramatically causing an even greater strain on the environment.
The process of hunting and eating prey bears many health-related risks. Most importantly, cats can be injured during the hunting activity or they can become ill if the caught prey is diseased.
After all, hunting is a fight for life and death and the prey will do anything to get away from the cat. Birds have fierce beaks and rodents have sharp teeth that can hurt and injure a cat. This is the reason why cats “play” with their prey before killing it. What looks to humans as if the cat is “playing” with the prey is in effect the process of wearing down the animal by pouncing on it and throwing it around so it is safe to finally kill and eat it without being injured.
Wild animals often carry intestinal parasites such as roundworms. If the prey that your cat hunts is diseased, the parasites that they carry can be transmitted to other pets or humans. These parasites can lead to severe illness in animals and humans causing symptoms involving diarrhea and vomiting.
Rodents can be carriers of other very harmful diseases such as the plague, leptospirosis, and hantavirus and can be transmitted to the cat or directly to a human if they come into contact with a diseased animal that is brought into the home.
It is very common for cats to get infected with the toxoplasmosis parasite in a variety of ways, not only through hunting. Even though your cat may never show signs of illness, it can still transmit the parasites to you.
Most commonly, parasites are transmitted when coming in contact with the cat’s litter or by disposing of a diseased animal that your cat brought home. As parasites can be detrimental, especially toxoplasmosis parasites for pregnant women, it is always recommended to wear disposable gloves and ensure that the dead prey is disposed of properly. Always disinfect yourself by thoroughly washing your hands after disposing of a dead animal or cleaning the litter box.
The consequences for the owners
In addition to the effects on other animals, the hunting behavior of cats also has direct consequences for their owners. It’s an all-too-familiar story for cat owners: You give your cat access to nature, and once he/she returns home for dinner you find that she has brought you a rodent, bird, lizard, frog, snake, you name it.
This behavior leaves many cat owners frustrated. In a study that we conducted, the majority of respondents emphasized that they feel stressed and disgusted when their cat brings home prey. Especially, finding and disposing of the remains of dead animals sparks revulsion and the sleepless nights spent carrying out elaborate search operations to find animals that may still be alive creates stress and annoyance for the cat owners. These results suggest that cat owners experience increased stress which in combination with the disgust of disposing of prey can cause the cat-owner relationship to suffer.
What can you do about it?
If your cat has access to nature it is impossible to prevent them from hunting completely because every cat is hardwired with the hunting instinct which makes them unable to resist the flapping of a bird's wings or the rustle of a small mouse. However, there are a variety of things that can be done to lessen their desire to hunt or reduce their success rate while hunting:
Providing them with playtime activities and outdoor spaces that keep them interested and stimulated.
Encouraging your cat to play in a manner that mimics hunting and then giving them a treat as a reward.
Provide them with a well-balanced diet, ensuring they are fed small regular meals that are high in protein and full of variety and contain real meat as cats are strict carnivores and require meat to live a healthy life.
Try to offer your cat fresh meat, this often helps to calm their need for the taste of blood that they get from killing a bird or small mammal.
Lock your cat indoors at night, this will help to reduce the amount of prey killed as most rodents are most active at night.
Fit your cat with a reflective collar that has a bell so that prey can more easily spot a cat and find a spot to hide.
Finally, cats hunting prey has a lot of consequences for the environment through biodiversity loss such as affecting the physical and mental health of both the cat and its owner. Pawly focuses on the owner and wants to get rid of some of the repercussions caused by their cat hunting prey. Most importantly, Pawly wants to reduce the stress levels of cat owners and enable them to have a peaceful sleep without being interrupted by the daunting sound of their cat playing in the middle of the night with recently caught prey. With Pawly’s specially designed, smart cat door, we plan to alleviate these consequences. More about this unique solution will be explained in more detail in the next blog, until then you can learn more about the product on our website here:
Want to read more about this topic? This New York Times Article might interest you.