Cats Hunting Wildlife: Why It Is a Problem and What to do About It

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By Dr Sophia Yin

A reader once asked me, “My cat is an avid hunter, and in our area there appears to be a plentiful supply of rats and mice. He was bringing me samples on a daily basis and I had to export the live ones and bury the dead ones. I now partially closed the cat door so that he could get out but not in. However, this leaves him out at night and there seems to be creatures out there that could hunt him. Do you have any suggestions for what I should do? Can I program him to leave his presents outdoors? “

Hunting is a Strong Instinct for Many Cats

Unfortunately, this is a tough problem to solve through training. Cat's who never have the opportunity to hunt early on often never develop a taste for the sport. Many are even fearful of rats and large mice. Once a kitty develops a taste for the hunt though, there's no turning back. Rats, mice, lizards, birds beware. Kitty will hunt them like his life depends on it and cats, being such avid hunters, can have a major impact on the local songbird and small mammal population. They'll tenaciously seek their sport and bring a sampling of their catches back, dead or alive to the place they consider home. 

Even a full stomach won't stop his game. While hunger can increase predatory drive, most housecats hunt for thrill, not just for food. In fact, cat researchers have known for many years that hunger and hunting are under separate control in the brain. Cats engrossed in a tasty meal will break away from their flavorful feast to hunt rats that just happen by (i.e. those conveniently placed in the same room by a researcher studying predatory behavior in cats). They'll seek and destroy and drag their unfortunate catch back. Then, they'll resume eating their regular meal leaving the rat, perhaps for another day. 

Why Surplus Killing is Common

This hunting for sport and playing with prey may seem cruel, but in the animal world, surplus killing is not that unusual. Just ask the farmer whose chicken coop has just been raided by the local fox or raccoon. It seems a perplexing practice at first until you consider that in the wild, hunting is a big business. While a well-fed house cat may spend up to a quarter of each day hunting, feral cats who survive on their catch can spend over half of their day hunting. They carefully spy, stalk, pounce, and bat, and for all their stealth, they're only successful one out of ten times. 

With that poor track record, cats as well as other predators needs a strong drive to hunt, otherwise a few misses and Kitty would give up and starve. For these avid sportsters, when the picking's easy they can't help but rack up the points. 

What are Your Options?

So where does all this leave you? Given that your cat's addicted to the hunt and that's not going to change, you do have options, although none are ideal. Option one is to keep Kitty outside permanently. Then Kitty can hunt all day yet will never bring his presents in the house for your pleasure or his play. The problem here is that a permanently unsupervised kitty is an unsafe kitty. All that time tracking the call of the Wild can quickly turn Kitty from predator to prey. Furthermore, cats in general tend to hide signs of illness until they're very sick. If you only see Kitty briefly each day, early symptoms are sure to be missed. 

One compromise is to keep the wily hunter out all day and bring him in at night. A small morning meal and a larger tastier meal at night will help ensure that he comes home on cue. This still won't prevent possible mass destruction of small furry things that might serve as food for owls, hawks and other wildlife. Even wearing a kitty-safe collar with a bell won’t cut down on captures since the bells have no meaning to birds and rodents. Plus, neither a bell, nor coming in at night will remove her chances of being hit by a car or eaten by day predators.

A better option both for the local prey population and for Kitty's overall safety is to keep Kitty inside permanently. This is sure to keep him from hunting mice and birds but not necessarily from attacking shoes and legs or from yowling to be let out. To keep him from diverting his predatory prowess to your precious pants and retrain him to enjoy indoor life, you'll have to provide some replacement toys and fill his extra time with interactive play. I recently had to revoke my cat, Dante’s, outdoor privileges since our outdoor cat containment system wasn’t containing him. By rewarding him for performing tricks and for sitting with portions of his meal within a couple of days he stopped yowling and laying in wait to dart out the door. Now he seems content to be inside-only again.

In addition to this indoor option, you can add an outdoor enclosure or containment system. Hopefully yours will work better than mine, which has been up for 10 years and needs replacing. In fact, for those readers who have a system they like, please send photos!

Oh yeah, and how about a fourth option — training Kitty to leave his presents outside? With clever planning and tenacious execution, maybe a master at cat training could get the job done……eventually. The rest of us would just get old trying. 

Do you have an outdoor enclosure or fencing system for your kitty? If so, tell us about it and even send us pictures to post.

(revised from article originally in the SF chronicle)

 

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23 responses to “Cats Hunting Wildlife: Why It Is a Problem and What to do About It

  1. No kitty enclosure, but I do have a related suggestion for people who are beset with _feral_ cats eating wildlife but who are willing to gentle them down gradually. If you have any room that the feral kitties could occupy, you can temporarily install a cat door in the window, and tilt a ladder up to it on the outside, with furniture or something on the inside to serve as the other “ladder.” I had to tap on the steps and push the catflap to demonstrate, but even the wildest ones got the idea, & even the arthritic ones negotiated the steps, to my surprise. After they concluded we weren’t going to eat them, we could — again to my surprise — at least close the cat door for a week or so at a time during fledgling season, or if there were reports of bigger wildlife around.

    The old feral puddies are indoor-only now, retired & luxuriating politely in cool indoor comfort, while our own spoiled furballs are skulking at the back door, badly in need of training. . .

  2. Cats Hunting Wildlife! It seems a perplexing practice at first until presents outdoors Wildlife. To keep him from diverting his predatory prowess to your precious pants and retrain him to enjoy indoor life. Thanks!

  3. I’m interested in option # 4: training my cats to leave their “presents” outside. My cats are indoor/outdoor cats at will, they have a kitty door. I don’t want to take they’re outdoor privileges away, and their suppression of the rodent community is actually appreciated by the community. How might I go about training them not to bring their kills inside?

  4. All you cat owners are missing the point. Your indoor/outdoor cats are decimating the small wildlife such as birds and squirrels, not typically despised by human beings, like mice and rats often are. IF ONLY your cats restricted themselves to mice and rats there would be no problem. But you are foisting your ferocious killers on neighbourhoods thoughtlessly. Since by-laws regarding cats are impracticable, it is up to humans who want to keep cats as pets to make them indoor cats. Believe me, a cat who is not allowed outside will soon adapt to that reality, and a cat who has never been outside will not even know what he or she is missing. I know many people who have contented indoor cats. Please have some consideration for the wildlife. Cats should only be allowed outside if there is a need for rodent control, like on a farm.

    1. That is ridiculous – you think there is a squirrel shortage going on? Come on – wildlife animals HUNT and KILL. Humans do it, and all carnivores do it. Its a natural instinct. With or without humans involved, cats would be killing and eating bunnies, squirrels, mouse, rats, birds, etc – because that’s what THEY DO. Keeping all cats inside is not even a remotely realistic option. And with all your talk of “ferocious killers” that cats are (eye roll), I would hope you are 100% VEGAN as how you can classify yourself as anything less then the same when you eat chickens, cows and pigs, you ferocious killer, you.

      1. Well I agree I don’t thinkn it’s fair to make a cat stay in all the time. My cats won’t sometimes they don’t want to get out . But they likevit outside and they need to be allowed to be a cat at least 1 in a while. But they get in trouble with the neighbors for hunting the birds. but as you say that’s it is nature. Not just for the a cats. Humans hunt too and trying to make a conivar a vegin. Wouldn’t be easy. I think it mess them up . Because they can’t just eat vegetables .. no more the a vegantain animal can eat meat. . I think it could go more 1 way then the other at for animals cats . Yes humans do huntv and kill and eat animals m but they’re pet pav k for son a of us. But still . Someone had to kill it. Or hunt it first and kill it.

      2. Doing research for a speech about endangered species. Do you realize that cats and dogs are one of the main reasons animals such as the Golden Mole is on the endangered species list? Golden Moles are in fact in the top ten to become extinct. I have cats as well and love them to bits but I do see it as a serious problem that there is no certain way to keep them from hunting animals such as these.

      3. While there might not be a “squirrel shortage” going on, feral and outdoor cats are certainly decimating populations of songbirds and other small mammals. Domestic cats are NOT native species. While hunting is a natural instinct for almost all carnivores and omnivores, invasive predators – such as cats – are contributing to declines in birds and small mammals.
        Scientists recently published “Decline of the North American Avifauna” – discovering a loss of 3 billion birds in North America within the last 50 years…and outdoor cats are a major contributor. A study published in 2013 “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife in the United States” reports that cats are responsible for 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually.

        Deborah M. is right, cat owners need to please listen to science (!!!) and stop letting their cats outside. Yes, your precious little baby may paw and whine at the door to be let out…but think of the native wildlife. Keeping all cats inside IS a realistic option, if owners were responsible and educated, and feral cats were culled regularly.

        -Wildlife Conservation Biology student, Southeast Missouri State University

  5. What if cat absolutely REFUSES to use litterbox indoors but you want to somehow get him to become an ALL time indoors cat again?

    1. I’m sure it’s because your cat is accustomed to meat. Have you tried spinach? My cat’s enjoy eat spinach and go crazy for it.

    2. Cats are carnivorous and rely on protein to get their needs met. Some commercial cat foods have grain fillers, but these aren’t the best for their health.

      1. Cats don’t just need “protein” (which we humans can get from beans or nuts just as well as from meat), they need ANIMAL protein. A cat’s diet should really be all animal parts, no grains, no vegetables or fruits, no beans or legumes (ugh, I’m so sick of these cat foods advertising themselves proudly as “Grain free!” – and indeed they are grain free – but they have PEA PROTEIN! Cats don’t and shouldn’t eat peas!)
        If they really like spinach or cataloupe or something like that, a small amount as a treat now and again might not be an issue, but don’t try to make them into vegetarians.

  6. That picture looks just like my cat. If I let him, he’d be an excellent lizard hunter. I limit my cats outside time and oberse them. They actually listen so I can keep them in the yard and keep them safe. I don’t want him killing lizards nor getting sick from them.

    1. I have tried that with my hunter, and it only works for birds. The toll this weekend has been 2 young squirrels in 2 days. I do not want to confine him or the other two (who couldn’t catch a cold if they tried) to the house, as that would actually confine me to the house as well. I do not have a well placed window to do the catio thing, and I am getting frustrated. The hunter is on a diet, but that may have to go for the summer.

  7. Tried keeping my one cat inside. She destroyed all my screens, then figured out how to push the screens out ! Smart and determined to be outside. In the winter she stays inside…

  8. If you own a cat, or dog and live close to neighbors that don’t, it’s your responsibility to your pet & neighbor to keep your pet in check. Some folks may let you k,ow your pet is in their yard/space creating a “problem” for them & it can be worked out between you for good all around; however, there are some instances where your pet can be harmed or taken away because of it not being kept within your/its boundaries. So, for the goodness & health of all, especially our pets, we should keep them leashed, fenced, inside, or within eyesight at all times. Keeping them safe is our job.

  9. We currently have 4 cats. One is 18 years old and has long since stopped hunting. The other 3 are litter mates with very different personalities. We live in the country and two of them hunt mice that come into their outdoor space. There is not much to be done about this and it ultimately prevents the mice from coming in the house.

    It is the smallest of the three that has become a problem. She has always been an escape artist and a very good climber. The outdoor catio is 35’ x 35’ x 11’ and is covered with deer fencing and bird netting. Lately she has taken to climbing up to the beams and following them along until she finds a hole (there is a big cedar in the middle of the enclosure and falling branches sometimes make small holes. We will repair the holes again later today.

    Over the past few days her hunting behaviour has gone into overdrive when she escapes. She has caught a vole, two shrews, unsuccessfully tried to get at a nest of swallows and yesterday she caught a baby bunny which my wife rescued right away. She may have caught other animals that we haven’t found.

    We have the BirdBeSafe collars which work well for birds, and she has 3 bells on her collar which don’t seem to do anything regarding small mammals. For now:
    – she is locked in the house until the catio is once again secure
    – she will only go out to the catio in the middle of the day when birds/small mammals are less active (in case she escapes)
    – if this doesn’t work then she becomes an indoor cat while her litter mates enjoy the catio.

    Does anyone know how to deter her from catching small mammals if she escapes.

    I tried to attach a photo of our catio but couldn’t figure it out. If you you are interested, I can always send you a photo.

    Thank you very much.

  10. My cat was viciously bitten in multiple areas by squirrels he decapitated..It was very traumatic and expensive. Its been 2 months so We thought it was over, I even doubted that is what happened. But today, he walked right up to the back door with a live one in his mouth, full grown and missing front feet. Ugh!!! Now its on my front porch where I managed to pry them apart…Ughx2!!!!!

  11. I’ve taken in a feral cat that was hanging around watching me work. She had a clipped right ear tip, indicating the Humane Society had dealt with her. She is real loving to me, but kills absolutely everything and can jump 4-5 feet when I play with her. Over the last year she has killed and injured many critters, and it makes me very upset, but I’ve come to half accept it to ease on my frustration. I’ve considered putting her down in order to save the hundreds of animals she kills. Before I had a cat I really enjoyed feeding the birds, watching the squirrels and bunnies, but now they’re all gone and I miss them. Quite the dilemma. I’ve enclosed my bird feeding stations in a 5 ft fenced area, so many birds are being saved, but the other critters are the ones I miss. When I see a new ground squirrel or chipmunk or bunny I know their hours are numbered. After living for approx 3 years feral, there is no way she would become indoor without ultimately trying to kill me in my sleep. Her door must remain open. I know this is a taboo subject, but any thoughts on putting a cat down such as this? It would be very hard for me to to, but I’m so tired of clubbing her injured victims. So tired.

    1. We have tamed many feral cats.If she is friendly enough to come into your home, she can be tamed. Start her off in a small enclosed area of the house. Put everything on a strict schedule and give her time. Have lots of stimulation available — cat trees, frequent play times, even a catio or cat enclosure (we have a screened porch) As she becomes more accustomed to staying inside, using the litterbox, etc. you can start giving her more freedom in the house. You’ll likely always have to watch for door darting and such. We’ve always had another cat already in the house, so that also provides a source of stimulation and entertainment. It does take some work, and patience, but it can be done. If you are not feeling willing to do it, then please see if you can find another home for her that will, before resorting to euthanasia. Most vets won’t euthanize a perfectly healthy pet I don’t think.

  12. Thank you for this information, it made me feel better. Today, for the first time sine I have adopted my cat Sandy, in January 2013, I hadn’t seen my cat catch any prey and wondered if she ever would. As I felt more and more comfortable letting her out whenever I was able to watch her closely, I wondered even more, as it was more likely to happen. But she never caught anything. Well recently I found out that wearing a bell would make her less able to catch anything because of the noise in her ear (also that it could be potentially making her loose her hearing) so I took it off of her then and there. After this she nearly caught her first prey, a chipmunk. I’m in new jersey. When she caught it today I was, a bit surprised. She had it in her mouth and brought it to the patio door of my family’s home. She almost killed it. I felt anxious but had to act quickly. I rescued the chipmunk even though I know it is a cats wild instinct to catch them. And she wanted to so badly. I was wondering if I did the right thing. Now I feel that I did the right thing a bit more than I was thinking maybe I did. Still I was unsure. I wanted to find out also. Is it harmful to do that to my cat. I guess it’s not. I hope she will be able to stay indoors. :-). I welcome a reply thank you. Susan cat lover.

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