Can You Stop A Cat From Hunting? Surprisingly, You Can!

Category: Cat Behavior, cat food, Cat Research
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Can you stop a cat from hunting? Yes, you can! At least that’s what a team of scientists at the University of Exeter say in a study published this month in Current Biology. And you don’t need any collars, bells or bibs. It all comes down to what’s in that can of food your cat eats and what’s in his toy basket. 

Can you stop a cat from hunting? Yes, you can!

Katie looking as innocent as her ceramic cat friend.

I’m sad to say I live with an extremely lethal cat. Katie is long and lean, and when she sits up straight, she looks very elegant and regal. But there’s another side to this white with gray and orange patches beauty that isn’t so pretty. She doesn’t mind getting her white paws dirty wading through mulch and fallen leaves to catch anything that scurries along the ground. Mice, snakes and frogs are all fair game for Katie Cat. So how do you stop a cat from hunting? This finding by scientists at the University of Exeter is something I never even thought about, although it makes sense.

It sounds simple enough. Forget the collars with double bells, bibs and other fancy contraptions cats don’t especially like. Just give your cat high protein meat-based wet food and play with him for a few minutes a day, and he’ll lose interest in hunting. Katie has always had high protein, meat-based wet food. But playing with her with a wand or fishing pole toy for a few minutes before she does out might satisfy her need to catch small animals and… I don’t like to think about what happens next. The toy as substitue mouse is certainly worth a try.

Engineered To Hunt

Blame instinct when your cat catches a toy or tiny animal. Our cats are hardwired to be predators, and their bodies are perfectly engineered for hunting.

They’re quick, and since their collar bones are not attached to their shoulder joints, they’re exceptionally agile. Walking with retracted claws, their fur and paw pads muffle their steps. Their eyes are designed to see well in dim light, when all the little prey animals are out and about. And their amazingly sensitive ears pick up on the high frequency sounds rodents make, while their whiskers pick up the vibrations of tiny animals nearby.

Then there are the teeth. If you’ve ever been bitten by a cat, you know how strong their canines are. One of their premolars has a spur that crushes bones. And those rough, sandpaper-like papillae on a cat’s tongue help pull flesh off the bones. All of these lethal weapons are packed into a short muzzle, allowing for a strong, wide bite.

As I’m typing, Katie is next to me looking elegant and beautiful. It’s hard to believe I’m sitting beside a perfectly engineered mousetrap. But it was the mousetrap people were looking for thousands of years ago when sailors took cats to sea to keep mice away from their food, and farmers saw them as an efficient way to stop rodents from eating the crops they were storing. Some were even willing to pay for kittens whose moms were proven mousers.

Luckily for me, Katie was a foster fail. But I would have paid any amount of money for her, not for a mousetrap, but for the joy of her friendship.

Why Cats Hunt: It's About Opportunity Not Food

Although I’ve seen my entire cat family form a tag team to catch a mouse (the mouse always gets away), cats are solitary hunters. And despite the finely-tuned hunting machines that they are, their success rate is just about 50 percent. If a cat who didn’t have people to feed him hunted only when he was hungry, he’d probably starve. So instinct tells him to be an opportunistic hunter and try to catch whatever he can whenever he can.

Cats also look for easy prey. A bird in midair or perched on the limb of a tree is not easy to catch, so most cats are rodent specialists. Counting all the insects they catch, they eat between 15-20 small meals a day.

How To Stop A Cat From Hunting: The Research

So how do you stop a cat from hunting? The University of Exeter scientists looked at 355 cats in 219 households for 12 weeks. Their goal was to stop cats from hunting in a way that would satisfy the cats’ predatory instincts and keep their people happy while while eliminating or cutting down on the carnage.

During the study, some of the cats wore collars with bells or Birdsbesafe collar covers. Others ate a high protein meat-based grain-free diet. Another group played with their people five-ten minutes a day. And a fourth group had puzzle feeders that theoretically make cats “hunt” and work for their food. 

The meat-based diet seemed the most likely way to stop a cat from hunting at least most of the time. During the study, the cats in that group brought home 36 percent fewer small animals. The cats who played with their people with a wand or fishing pole toy and and then had the satisfaction of “killing” a toy mouse came home with 25 percent fewer mice and voles.

While the Birdsbesafe collars didn’t save many rodents’ lives, the cats who wore them brought home 42 percent fewer birds. 

And the cats with puzzle feeders? The number of animals they brought home increased by 33 per cent. 

Other Ways To Stop A Cat From Hunting

The least labor intensive way to stop a cat from hunting is to keep her in from dusk to dawn when all the little animals are out and about, and the birds are on the ground looking for food. Your cat’s safer inside at night, too. To get your cat to come in when you want her to, just give her wet food the second she strolls through the door. When she realizes that’s the new routine, she’ll be there waiting.

If your cat catches birds, the Birdsbesafe collar will make her look sort of silly, but it won’t inhibit her ability to just be a cat and it does work, at least most of the time. The CatBib also works. Just be sure to read the directions. You can also keep birds safer by removing all the plants around your birdfeeders so cats can’t ambush them while they’re eating.

Also, make sure your cat isn’t hunting because he’s hungry. Cats need between 20-30 calories (kcals on a cat food can) per pound of body weight a day. Grain-free wet food that’s high in protein from animal sources is best and most filling. Soy and wheat gluten might count as protein but don’t provide adequate nutrition for a cat. You can free feed wet food, or give your cat several small meals a day. If your cat is outside all day, put some food out for him so he’ll eat that instead of hunting.

Happily, Katie is a lot less lethal since she’s been inside at night. While the other cats lounge on the sidewalk and wait for neighbors to come by and pet them, she still heads off to the woods by herself. She’s a true predator and solitary hunter. But these days, her hunting seems to be limited to falling leaves and insects. That’s fine with me, and it seems to work for her, too.  

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