Owners in denial over cat predation on wildlife

New research suggests cat owners are reluctant to accept their cat’s role in falling wildlife numbers, and a cat welfare approach may be the only way to effect change.

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Domestic cats have been introduced by humans across the world and growing cat populations are placing local wildlife under greater pressure.

Free-roaming cats on islands have contributed to the extinction of native bird, mammal, and reptile species unable to fend off this introduced predator.

Previous studies have found that although cats generally only catch one or two prey items per month, and not all cats hunt, high density cat populations can have a significant impact on wildlife numbers over time.

This new study, published in Ecology and Evolution, will inform management strategies to reduce cat predation, showing prevailing attitudes that need to be overcome to protect wildlife.

There is a clear need to directly address the perceptions and opinions of cat owners,” said lead author Dr Jenni McDonald from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation.

Researchers studied cats in two U.K villages to determine the attitude of cat owners to their pet’s predatory habits. They found that irrespective of prey numbers brought home by their cat, owners did not believe cats are harmful to wildlife.

Owners were against suggested measures to restrict their cat’s freedom to reduce the impact on local wildlife. However, they would consider neutering, which is associated with cat welfare.

Co-author Professor Matthew Evans, Professor of Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, said lack of awareness and owner opposition to keeping cats indoors makes it difficult for conservationists.

Owners in this study did not accept their cat’s potential conservation impact, believing that predation is part of the ecosystem, said Evans.

Introduced predators can wreak havoc on wildlife in both urban and rural areas. In the U.S, a study estimated that the deaths of 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually were caused by free-ranging domestic cats.

In the U.K, there are over ten million domestic cats spread across 23% of households. The Mammal Society estimates 275 million prey items are caught each year and 55 million of those are birds.

A University of Sheffield study suggests that birds are not only at risk of cat predation. They change their behaviour in a cat’s presence, making loud alarm calls to defend a nest and inadvertently alerting predator crows and magpies. The birds also fed their chicks less often after the cat threat had gone.

Dr Jenni McDonald believes cat welfare is the way to encourage owners to get involved in reducing wildlife deaths caused by domestic cats.

Free-roaming cats are at risk of becoming lost, injured, diseased, pregnant, or run over. Keeping pet cats inside makes sense from an animal welfare and healthcare cost viewpoint, and it would help protect our wildlife.

Read the full article at Nature in Mind

Image credits:  Cenizo by David Talens on Flickr with Creative Commons Attribution Licence


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Tracy is a freelance writer with special interest in scientific research and news on wildlife, the environment, animal welfare, and mental health. Follow my 'Nature in Mind' blog at www.tracybrighten.com and Twitter @TracyBrighten1

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