Most cat owners will know that look — the wild feral eyes that come out at night. It's like a switch is flicked, and suddenly there's seemingly no stopping your pet cat, so docile during the day, from running out that cat flap for its nighttime hunt.
Now, a new feline-focused study by researchers at the University of Exeter reveals there are two principal methods cat owners can use to get their cats to hunt less: play with them daily, and feed them meat-rich food.
The research showed that introducing a protein-rich commercial meat food to cats reduced the number of prey animals they brought home by 36 percent. Meanwhile, five to ten minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25 percent reduction.
"This project provides us with alternatives for cat owners that are simple and effective and so easy to adopt," states Dr. Adam Grogan, Head of Wildlife at the RSPCA
The study, based on a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 households in south-west England, also found that cat collar bells had no discernable effect on hunting.
As a press statement by the University of Exeter points out, finding natural methods to reduce cat hunting is a conservation and welfare concern.
Easy alternatives to traditional methods for reducing cat hunting
Traditional methods for reducing hunting, such as neutering cats, are often controversial and considered unacceptable by owners.
"Previous research in this area has focussed on inhibiting cats' ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices, and deterrents," said Professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute.
"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.
"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 scientists say that proteins derived from plant sources such as soy in cat some cat foods might leave domestic cats deficient in micronutrients that prompt their hunting instinct.
Another recent feline study delved into the neural systems activated by catnip, suggesting the plant activates similar neural pathways as heroin and morphine do in humans.
The next step for the cat hunting research is to find out whether they can pinpoint a specific micronutrient. If they do, they might then be able to add that micronutrient to cat food to reduce hunting in cats.
Rather humorously, the researchers also plan to investigate whether different styles of play have different effects — simulating a kill with a toy mouse, for example, might reduce a cat's desire to hunt. We would love to be part of that research group.