There’s been a lot of research being done recently with domestic animals, especially companion animals like dogs and cats. Maybe it’s because research on primates and other large wild creatures is being discouraged and that’s its expensive and sometimes dangerous. Maybe it was just that the scientific community suddenly realized that it was missing some fascinating behavior right under its nose. For whatever reason the new research is providing some fascinating details in the life of our companion animals and also igniting some controversy.
The research on domestic cats is a good example. Wherever there are people there are cats. Some older research actually correlated genetic characteristics of cats, such as their color, with the history of human settlement in an area. It seems that different human populations developed a preference for certain colors in cats and when they move to a new area they bring the dominant color of cats in their old area with them. If these cats enter an area where there are no or few domestic cats that coloration becomes the dominant or founding color of common cats in the new area. Human historians then have a clue as to where the founding human population of an area came from.
But the newest research on cats that is stirring controversy is a study from the University of Georgia and National Geographic that followed the daily lives of cats from tiny cameras attached to their collars. The collars were breakaway type collars and the cameras had a chip that allowed them to be traced if they were lost. (The cats were pretty hard on the cameras dunking them in water as they drank and knocking and scraping them as they prowled and they had to be frequently repaired). The objects of the study were to see what cats did outdoors, what they hunted and what risks they were exposed to as they prowled.
It was the hunting that seemed to ignite interest and controversy. Wildlife conservationists, especially bird lovers, have long made cats a villain to native wildlife and responsible for much of the decline in wild bird populations. Cat lovers stanchly defend their pets and say that they are victims of bad press. As usual the truth – whether cats are evil destroyers of wildlife or relatively harmless- lies somewhere in between. Many more and much larger studies need to be done before we can draw conclusions.
It’s true that in the US (as well as other countries) there are as many feral, relatively uncared for cats as there are pet cats. But that’s probably been true since the domestication of cats and isn’t a new problem. Cats revert to a “wild” status quite readily and it’s even hard to determine which cats out there roaming are really feral or just roaming pets. One interesting finding in newer research, (University of Illinois), is that feral cats are usually within 1,000 feet of a human structure, whether that is homes, farm buildings, stadiums or park restrooms. That is they don’t often exist in the middle of the wilderness. A few exceptions are when cats are found on unpopulated islands, usually released there by humans.
Cats kill prey whether they are well fed or not if they are a cat that likes to hunt. All cats however, are not equal when it comes to hunting skill or desire and that’s something that many cat owners as well as research can confirm. Of course cats that are forced to hunt because they are hungry will hunt more often and they may become more skilled at it. But cats that are dumped don’t always have the skills to hunt successfully and many a cat that was abandoned has died of starvation. Hunting skill and desire are tied to genetics and early training in cats. Some cats come from a line of hunting cats and become avid hunters, whether feral or well cared for. This is especially true of cats that accompany their mothers on hunting trips when young. Other cats don’t seem especially interested in hunting. The cat camera study found that only about 30% of the cats in the study hunted successfully. Many cats just strolled around or slept when they were outside the home. Some even visited second homes instead of hunting. But a few cats were very interested and successful hunters even though they were well cared for.
Another interesting finding in recent surveys of cat’s hunting and prey choices was that in all studies birds were less than half of the total victims of cat hunting. In the Georgia study small reptiles and amphibians as well as insects were taken more often than either mammals or birds. In other studies reviewed, small mammals, mice, rats, chipmunks, even squirrels and rabbits were killed more frequently than birds. (University of Wisconsin) Unless cats are in a place with many ground nesting birds, such as where seabirds nest, their primary prey is not birds. (Of course there are many reptiles and amphibians that are endangered as well as birds.)
Keep in mind that cats were primarily domesticated when people began farming and storing grain. They were a first line of defense against rodents devouring human food. If all cats were removed from the “wild” we would have a serious problem controlling rodents, and it would impact our global food supply. In several studies rats and other small mammals such as red squirrels, were found to kill more birds by consuming eggs and nestlings, than cats do. Removing cats from some areas actually increases bird predation from other sources. And most studies that count the prey of cats don’t differentiate the bird species killed. If cats kill primarily English sparrows, starlings and other birds considered pests in an environment and that compete with other more desirable birds, then they are actually helping other birds to thrive.
One cannot jump to assumptions from the small cat cam study in Georgia that we can estimate how many birds are killed by cats nation-wide or world- wide or whether the kills are relevant to protecting any species. There are just too many variables to take into account when using data from such a tiny study. One research study that examined the effect of an increase in all kinds of predators in an area, including feral or free roaming cats, found that an increase in predator numbers in an urban or suburban area had almost no effect on bird species or numbers. In rural areas, however, a predator increase in an area meant a decrease in bird species and numbers. The reason may be that more food is available to both prey and predators in a densely populated area that doesn’t involve killing ( garbage, bird feeders, pet food, and so on). Reputable scientists wouldn’t try to take data from one small study and make sweeping statements. Only people with specific agendas do that.
Some interesting things revealed by the cat cam study was that the amount of prey brought home to humans didn’t correlate to the amount of prey killed. Cats in the study only brought a small percentage of their kills home to “feed” their humans. And cats only ate about a third of the prey killed, usually prey was played with for a while and then left. In the cat cam study, which was quite limited in number, the sex of the cat or its age had little to do with its hunting drive or skill. Of course all the cats in the study were neutered. Male cats, however, exhibited more risk taking behaviors, which would correlate with almost any other species that has ever been studied.
Feral cats can become problematic or seen as problematic in some areas and many population control strategies have been developed to deal with the problem. However what we do know is that these population control strategies haven’t been terribly successful in the long run. For example when some municipalities developed a neuter and release program to deal with stray cats they didn’t find a population reduction in most cases. In some cases the programs even encouraged people to dump more strays in the area. Trap and destroy programs only deplete cat populations temporarily.
This does not mean that we should not try to control feral cat populations and encourage people to keep cats indoors. The best reason to keep cats inside is for their own safety. (Almost all cats in the cat cam study practiced risky behaviors which included crossing streets and eating and drinking odd items.) And neutering all pet cats to limit overpopulation is vital. There are certain areas with endangered bird or reptile/amphibian species where all free roaming cats should be eliminated. We may want to concentrate on breeding cats that have less desire to hunt. We have been able to change instinctive behavior in dogs by selective breeding.
But it is important to remember that the biggest threat to all wildlife by far is loss of habitat and human interaction. In fact more birds are killed each year by flying into buildings than by cats. If you want to save a species preserving habitat and removing humans from would do more than controlling cats.
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