Researchers, including those at the University of Reading, have said the loss of tens of millions of animals each year to cat predation could “go beyond animal welfare concerns and become conservation concerns”.
The study, recently published in the journal
Landscape and Urbanismassessed the movements and prey of 79 pet cats in inner suburban areas and in areas adjacent to natural habitats bordering the suburban area.
Scientists assessed nine sites in the counties of Berkshire and Hampshire, UK, all within a 30km radius of the town of Reading.
“Cats are a non-native species. They are fed by their owners and receive veterinary care so you can think of them as mini super predators,” said study co-author Rebecca Thomas, from Royal Holloway University in London.
Pet owners were told to salvage any dead prey brought to them by their cats by freezing it in zip-lock bags until experts could assess it.
The researchers were able to attribute more than 450 dead animals brought in by the cats to individual felines in the study. In some cases, particularly in households with multiple cats, they said owners could not confirm which cat was responsible for bringing in prey.
Overall, mammals made up around 70% of dead prey returned by cats, which were significantly more likely to be returned than birds, the second most returned category at around 25%, the scientists said.
“Reptiles accounted for 3% of returns, with amphibians, invertebrates and others accounting for 1%,” the study notes.
Extrapolating data from the cats in the study, the scientists said that felines living on the edge of natural areas could kill up to 34 animals each year, while those in other suburban areas, surrounded by homes and away from natural habitats , could attack on average. about 15 each.
“A simple extrapolation based on the predation rates found in this study suggests that the 9.5 million pet cats in Britain could be killing between 160 and 270 million prey per year,” they added.
While cats in both types of areas killed similar numbers of birds, the researchers said those on the edge of natural areas killed more mammals.
The scientists also found – contrary to previous research – that wearing a bell was not a deterrent to cats, as these felines actually brought in the most prey.
“Young cats and those with increased available natural habitat killed more mammals, and unexpectedly bell wearing was associated with increased overall predation,” the researchers wrote in the study. .
Scientists, however, speculated that bells were likely placed on cats that were already known to return large numbers of prey.
The average number of prey items returned by cats in the new research was similar to those seen in other UK studies, but the new study suggests that the location of these felines must also be considered.
“As new residential developments are built on the outskirts of towns adjacent to areas of conservation value, it is likely that predation will increase as owners often also own pet cats,” the study warned.
“The presence of cats in conservation areas could have conservation implications due to the potential for direct effects from predation and indirect effects from disturbance, particularly on the most vulnerable species,” they warned.
The scientists said cat access to these areas, “particularly where susceptible wildlife species are found”, should be restricted.
“Only by understanding the negative ecological effects pet cats can have on their local biodiversity can we begin to develop appropriate approaches to environmentally responsible cat ownership,” they concluded.