Mind that cat – and its impact on wildlife

One Change: Conservationists urging cat owners to be aware of their pet’s hunting behaviour

Cats were famously described as the “sociopaths of the pet world” in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. The US author – a devoted birdwatcher – has drawn the fury of cat-lovers over the years for saying the animal represents an “ecological catastrophe” because of the threat they pose to birds and other wildlife.

It’s no secret that these fluffy creatures are notorious for hunting: one report estimates that domestic cats kill at least 1.3 billion birds and 6.3 billion small mammals each year in the US. A study in Australia found that every pet cat kills about 75 animals per year.

Meanwhile, evidence is stacking up to show that birds are under huge threat, with many species in decline or disappearing – though cats are not the only reason for this, of course: the climate emergency is wreaking havoc with the migratory patterns of birds, for example, while other issues such as pollution and agriculture have had a huge impact on habitat loss.

But back to cats: are they really domesticated? Cats and humans came to live side by side for their mutual benefit – they hunted rodents – and while many now live indoors, they can survive on their own. Interestingly, the average house cat is almost indistinguishable, genetically, from the European wildcat.


‘Cat wars’

There are differing takes on the impact of feral versus pet cats. According to some US studies, feral cats are responsible for most of the killing of wildlife and pose the added risk of spreading disease to other animals. Research in the Netherlands, however, found that pet cats can kill almost twice as many animals as their feral counterparts.

All of these studies have ramped up the tensions – or what has been described as “cat wars” – between cat owners and conservationists. (Last year an environmental law specialist received death threats after publishing a paper arguing that cat owners could be prosecuted for allowing their pets to hunt.) But there’s a need for a middle ground: cats aren’t going anywhere soon; so surely it’s better to raise awareness about the issue and get owners on board to observe the behaviour of their pets?

Hundreds of cat owners have taken part in a study in the UK to help collect data on the types of animals killed. Researchers are also planning to track cats with cameras to learn more about their hunting patterns. If you are a cat owner, putting a little bell on your pet will diminish its hunting effectiveness. Another way to instantly lessen your cat’s impact on the natural environment is to simply reduce its time outdoors – keep it inside during the early morning or evening when birds are more likely to be feeding.