Study Shows Pet Cats are an Increasing Threat to Local Wildlife

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Research by the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London has revealed that pet cats are having a much bigger impact on the wildlife around them than their owners perhaps realise.

Studies in two rural villages in the UK, Mawnan Smith in Cornwall and Thornhill near Stirling, has shown that cats kill dozens of wild animals in just a few months.

86 cats from 58 households took part in the study, where their hunting activity was monitored for four months, and the cat owners asked to full out a questionnaire highlighting their perceptions and attitudes.

The results, published in Ecology and Evolution, showed that 61 cats brought back some prey over the four months, with an average of two items per month. Some of the cats brought back up to 10 kills a month.

Overall, the cats in Mawnan Smith killed a total of 325 animals during the study. However, researchers warned that the cats are likely to have killed more prey than were recorded in the study: “Cats are thought to kill up to three times more prey than they bring back, either because they consume or abandon their kills at the capture site.”

Of the animals killed, most were mammals (58% in Mawnan Smith and 72% in Thornhill), with birds accounting 26% of the kills at both sites. The cats also killed some reptiles and frogs.

The study also showed that although cat owners are broadly aware of whether their cat was predatory or not, they had little idea who many prey items their pet usually caught. The majority of owners, regardless of the amount of prey brought back, did not agree that cats are harmful to wildlife.

In a survey 60% of owners disagreed that cats were harming wildlife and 13% strongly disagreed. Owners were also strongly against keeping their cats indoors as a control measure.

Professor Matthew Evans from Queen Mary University of London, said: “Owners proved to be remarkably unaware of the predatory behaviour of their cat, they also did not agree with any measures that might limit the impact that cats have on local wildlife.”

Jennifer McDonald from the University of Exeter added: “Our study shows that cat owners do not accept that cats are a threat to wildlife, and oppose management strategies with the exception of neutering. There is a clear need to directly address the perceptions and opinions of cat owners.

“If we are to successfully reduce the number of wildlife deaths caused by domestic cats, the study suggests that we should use cat welfare as a method of encouraging cat owners to get involved.”

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However, the study also concluded that despite observational evidence that cats kill large numbers of native animals, “we are still unable to infer the direct impact of cat predation on wildlife” and some groups say such evidence is flimsy at best. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say that “there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide.”

Matthew Evans concludes that: “This study illustrates how difficult it would be to change the behaviour of cat owners if they are both unaware of how many animals are killed by their pet and resistant to control measures. This presents conservationists who might be attempting to reduce cat predation with serious difficulties, as owners disassociate themselves from any conservation impacts of their cat and take the view that cat predation is a natural part of the ecosystem.”

Previous studies have also shown that although the majority of cats only return a small amount of prey, it is the cumulative effect of high densities of cats that is likely to have an overall negative effect on the environment.

In the UK currently 23% of households share a population of over ten million domestic cats.

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Laura Clarke

Laura Clarke

Laura is a Zoologist currently living in Portsmouth.
Laura Clarke

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