In a new U.K. study, researchers interviewed cat owners about their pets’ roaming and hunting behaviors, what worries them, and what they feel is their responsibility.

The findings show that while many cat owners worry about their pets wandering the streets and and tend to dislike their compulsion to catch wildlife, they feel that this predatory behavior is an unavoidable instinct they can do little to change.

Cat owners who did want to limit hunting felt this was difficult to achieve without locking cats indoors, and hardly any owners wanted this.

“We found a spectrum of views on hunting, from owners who see it as positive for pest control to those who were deeply concerned about its consequences for wild animal populations,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Crowley, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“However, because hunting is a natural cat behavior, few owners believed they could effectively control this without negatively affecting their cats’ welfare.”

The researchers interviewed 48 cat owners from urban, suburban and rural areas in Cornwall and Oxfordshire.

Cats vary in the amount they hunt, with some catching multiple birds and small mammals every week, while many others stay indoors or wouldn’t chase a mouse if it ran right past them.

Many conservationists are nevertheless concerned about the effect even a minority of hunting cats might have on wildlife, especially declining species like house sparrows.

Current methods of preventing cats from catching wild prey include fitting them with collars with bells and bright colors, and keeping them indoors at night.

“Cat owners understandably make their pets’ health and well-being a priority, and many feel that cats need free access to the outdoors,” said Professor Robbie McDonald, head of Exeter’s Wildlife Science group, who is leading the research.

“At the same time, having such independent pets creates extra anxieties for owners about both their cats’ safety while ranging free, and their impacts on wildlife. We are working closely with cat owners and cat welfare organisations. Our aim is to find practical ways of reducing hunting, while enhancing cat health and welfare.”

Sponsorship for the study comes from the independent bird conservation charity SongBird Survival. The study is overseen by an advisory group including veterinarians, cat behavior and welfare experts, and representatives from SongBird Survival, International Cat Care and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

“We are very concerned about the significant adverse impacts that free-ranging domestic cats can have on our songbirds and other wildlife,” said Robert Middleditch, SongBird Survival’s Chairman.

“We are therefore delighted to have commissioned this important project, and believe that working with cat owners to find practical solutions, while promoting responsible pet ownership, can benefit both vulnerable wildlife and cats.”

Sam Watson, cat welfare expert at the RSPCA says the study is valuable as it helps shed light on pet owners’ sense of responsibility towards their cats and any potential impact they could have on wildlife.

“While there is still lots of debate as to whether cats have detrimental effects on wild bird populations, on an individual level predation attempts by cats are likely to cause considerable suffering, so we would welcome any practical solutions which would help to avoid this.” said Watson.

Source: University of Exeter