Think your cat's a killer? Think again

Domestic pets often find themselves blamed for killing local wild life - but there are better explanations to be found, and many cats have lost their hunting appetite

Related Topics

The fashion for pointing the finger at domestic cats for local declines in wildlife has been gaining momentum for some time.

It seems to have started in Australia and New Zealand, where domestic cats are not native mammals. There, cats have been able to give the indigenous predators something of a run for their money, escaping into the bush and probably killing large numbers of birds and small marsupials.

Man’s activities have undoubtedly had major effects on the wildlife in both these countries, but other introduced mammals, including the rat, the fox and even the dingo (not a native Australian animal, but a type of feral domestic dog) have all played a part, and conservationists there are now beginning to agree that the major factor has probably been none of the above, but destruction of habitats for agriculture and urbanisation. 

Nevertheless, cats are a convenient target because, unlike the others, they have owners who can be given the responsibility for their heinous crimes.

There is little doubt that, put into the wrong places, domestic cats can cause significant damage to wildlife populations - even so far as causing local extinctions. But all the documented examples of these have occurred on isolated islands where the small animals were especially vulnerable because there were no other predators. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cats were deliberately introduced onto hundreds of islands by sailors anxious to keep them free from vermin. In the much more complex ecosystems found on the mainland, cats generally make far less of an impact.  Even in Australia, municipal bans on cats, and local cat curfews, have had little effect on wildlife numbers or the number of species in those areas.  Most pet cats are far from “serious” about their hunting, and tend to catch only the weakest and most vulnerable individuals - those that would not, had they lived, have made any contribution to the next generation. 

Pet cats may also be being asked to take the blame for the activities of their feral cousins.  A recent study in the USA suggested that feral cats - domestic cats gone wild - are almost certainly much more of a threat to wildlife there than pet cats could ever be.  Most feral cats get only some of their food from humans - they either scavenge or hang around places where food is put out for them - and so they need to hunt in order to get enough to eat.  And it’s not just the number of calories that matters: it’s recently been shown that cats on nutritionally unbalanced diets, for example high in carbohydrate, hunt simply in order to get protein and other essential nutrients.

The majority of pet cats actually hunt very little, and some of their lack of motivation can be put down to the high quality and nutritional balance of supermarket cat-food. They simply don’t need to hunt, although their instincts may propel them to pounce when an opportunity presents itself.  In the recent survey of prey brought in by more than 50 cats in a Surrey village, featured on the BBC2 Horizon programme The Secret Life of the Cat, few pet cats caught anything at all, and the only prolific hunter was an anomaly, a cat that had spent its early years on the streets of Hong Kong, where it had learned to hunt simply in order to survive.

Cat owners often value their animals for their independent natures and their similarities to wild cats, and while they may feel revulsion at the gory “presents” that their cat sometimes brings home, they also realise that this is part of the cat’s heritage. All the same owners are often well-disposed to the idea of taking steps to protect their local wildlife from their cats - installing cat-proof bird feeders, building a log pile where small mammals can hide, and equipping their cat’s collar with a bell.  Such an approach is much more likely to benefit wildlife than draconian curfews or outright bans.

John Bradshaw's new book Cat Sense is out now

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map