Kitten playing with a ball

Play and meaty food deter cats from hunting

Playing with your cat every day and feeding them a meat-rich food can help reduce their hunting, researchers have found.

Predation of wild animals by domestic cats is a common concern for conservationists and cat owners, but many owners are reluctant to keep their cats indoors or restrict their outdoor access because they feel it would impact negatively on their cats’ quality of life.

Now, a study by the University of Exeter has found that increased play and a diet where the proteins come from meat – rather than plant sources – can effectively reduce hunting in cats.

“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,” explained Martina Cecchetti, the PhD student who conducted the experiments.

Cat eating meat

The 12-week trial included 355 cats from 219 households in south-west England. Introducing a premium commercial food where proteins were derived from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36%, and five to ten minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.

Play in the study involved owners simulating hunting by moving a feather toy on a string and wand so the cats could stalk, chase and pounce. Owners also gave the cats a toy mouse to play with afterwards, giving them the opportunity to perform further hunting behaviour such as biting and kicking.

“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,” said Professor Robbie McDonald of University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute.

“Our study shows that – using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods – owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.”

The study also examined the effect of existing devices used to limit cats’ hunting.

Brightly coloured collars reduced the number of birds captured and brought home by 42%, but had no effect on hunting of mammals. Cat bells had no discernible overall effect.

Cat with bright collar

Next, the researchers want to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting. They also plan to investigate whether different kinds of play have different effects, and whether combining strategies can reduce hunting even further.

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