Roaming Pet Cats Get Most of Their Food at Home

Whiskers reveal what they had for lunch.

Domestic cat hunting for mice in the garden
Daugirdas Tomas Racys / Getty Images

Pet cats that roam outdoors may show up at your door with a bird or rodent. But domestic cats that regularly catch wild prey aren’t doing it because they’re hungry. A new study finds they get most of their nutrients from food at home.

The new research is part of a larger project studying cats, cat owners, and wildlife predation. It looks at both the ecological and social impacts of the intertwined relationships.

“The project recognised the complex relation between domestic cats, wildlife and owners, and that cat owners are a key interest group, central to any effort to minimise cat predation,” researcher Martina Cecchetti of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, tells Treehugger.

“We did not want to quantify the impact of cats on wildlife, rather we wanted to understand the drivers underpinning the retention of hunting behaviour in domestic cats and while considering the owners’ views to design novel management strategies which reduces hunting motivation without imposing behavioural constraints.” 

For the study, researchers recruited 90 cat owners living throughout southwest England whose domestic felines regularly captured wild animals and brought them home.

Owners began by removing any devices (like collars with bells on them) that deterred pets from catching animals. For seven weeks, they were asked to record all the prey that their pets brought home.

Then the cats were divided into six groups and each was assigned some sort of intervention to deter hunting activity.

  • A quick-release reflective collar with a bell attached
  • A quick-release reflective collar with a rainbow-patterned Birdsbesafe collar cover
  • High-protein, grain-free food where the protein came mostly from meat sources
  • Dry food in interactive puzzle feeders
  • Owners spend at least five minutes daily playing with cats using fishing and mouse toys
  • Control group with no changes

Researchers took whisker samples from about 90 cats in the study. They clipped one at the beginning and at the end of the trial. Owners were also asked to collect and freeze the prey that the cats brought home.

The stable isotope ratios in the whiskers were analyzed to determine the sources of protein in the foods the cats had been eating. Researchers found that about 96% of their diet came from cat food and only about 3-4% came from wild animals.

“All pet cats are well fed, so we expected to find most of their diet made up of commercial foods. It is interesting that hunting and killing wild prey does not substantially contribute to the gross protein or energetic requirements of hunter cats,” Cecchetti says.

“This suggests that predatory instinct is probably the main reason why some cats hunt wild prey. Indeed, pet cats are still genetically, physiologically, and behaviourally remarkably similar to their wild progenitors. So, cats may hunt instinctively even if they are not hungry to capture and store prey to eat later.”

It’s also possible, researchers say, that if cats are lacking some micronutrient in their diet, consuming just small amounts of wild prey is enough to fill that deficiency.

The findings were published in the journal Ecosphere.

Decreasing Hunting and Hunting Motivation

Of all the interventions tried, the Birdsbesafe collar reduced the number of animals that cats caught the most. The colorful collar cover makes cats more visible to potential prey so they are able to fly away.

In a separate study the authors published in Current Biology in February, they showed that having a high meat content in food and daily play also significantly reduced the amount of prey brought home by cats, “suggesting that hunting could be related to the need to satisfy some nutritional shortfalls or behavioural motivations,” Cecchetti says.

“In our previous study we showed that cats wearing this cover reduced the number of birds brought home. However, this represents an impediment to the cat and does not influence the cat’s motivation for hunting,” she says.

“While high-meat content food and object play reduced the number of prey brought home, decreasing hunting motivation.”

View Article Sources
  1. Cecchetti, Martina, et al. "Contributions of Wild And Provisioned Foods to the Diets of Domestic Cats that Depredate Wild Animals." Ecosphere, vol. 12, no. 9, 2021, doi:10.1002/ecs2.3737

  2. researcher Martina Cecchetti of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter

  3. Cecchetti, Martina, et al. "Provision of High Meat Content Food and Object Play Reduce Predation of Wild Animals by Domestic Cats Felis Catus." Current Biology, vol. 31, no. 5, 2021, pp. 1107-1111.e5., doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.12.044