Study Reveals Cats Prefer Free Meals at Home Even If They Hunt Outdoors

Study Reveals Cats Prefer Free Meals at Home Even If They Hunt Outdoors

In different articles about cats that I’ve posted on this website, one thing that always comes up is the fact that outdoor cats hunt just for the sake of hunting. Scientists from the University of Exeter further proved this by using forensic evidence from cats’ whiskers to find out what the tested cats had been eating.

The researchers trimmed a whisker from each cat in the study, once at the start and once at the end. Cats that ‘participated’ in this study were all regular hunters which had frequently and recently (at the time of study) caught wild animals.

After trimming the whisker, they analyzed stable isotope ratios in the whiskers, identifying sources of protein from different wild and ‘home’ foods.

The result they found was that around 96% of their diet came from food provided by their owners, while just 3-4% came from eating wild animals. Again, hunting is more to sating their predatory instinct as opposed to hunger, which may explain why some hybrid (indoor/outdoor) cats are eager to be outside.

One of the scientists Dr. Martina Cecchetti said, “When food from owners is available, our study shows that cats rely almost entirely on this for nutrition. Some owners may worry about restricting hunting because cats need nutrition from wild prey, but in fact it seems even prolific hunters don’t actually eat much of the prey they catch.

“As predators, some cats may hunt instinctively even if they are not hungry-so-called ‘surplus killing’—to capture and store prey to eat later.”

Evolved to forget their “purpose” to hunt rats?

Now, although cats are known to be effective hunters and humans brought them along to deal with small pests a long time ago, it seems like modern cats have evolved to forget what they were brought in for: getting rid of rats. I mean, my cat’s afraid of a mouse. Afraid. Of a mouse.

In the case of New York City, the rat problem is unsolvable with releasing cats in the big apple.

Australian and US researchers have stated that city cats don’t really like hunting rats; they prefer smaller prey like birds or smaller native wildlife. So when they’re released to eliminate the pesky rodents, they actually pose risks and threats to native wildlife.

“New Yorkers often boast their rats ‘aren’t afraid of anything’ and are the ‘size of a cat.’ Yet cats are commonly released to control this relatively large, defensive and potentially dangerous prey,” said Dr. Michael H. Parsons, the study’s lead researcher.

stray cats near a garbage bag. Photo by Alexey Komarov Wikimedia Commons

When feral cats colonized a New York City waste recycling center, the researchers took the opportunity to get data. The team was already studying a colony of more than 100 rats living inside the center, by microchipping and releasing the animals to study their life history.

Then, they set up motion-capture video cameras to know if the cats were doing anything to the rats. Per the researchers, this was the first time that cats and rats were studied in a natural setting.

“Like any prey, rats overestimate the risks of predation. In the presence of cats, they adjust their behavior to make themselves less apparent and spend more time in burrows,” Dr. Parsons said.

Cats’ reluctance and rats’ adaptation

The NYC research team went through 306 videos taken over 79 days. There were up to three active cats beside the rat colony each day. However, the team recorded only 20 stalking activities, three kill attempts, and two successful kills.

Both successful hunts happened when cats found rats in hiding. There was a third attempt, but it was an open-floor chase where the cat lost interest.

The average weight of the studied rats was 330 g (about 11.64 oz); significantly heavier than a typical bird (15 g) or a mouse (30 g). And it is true that some rats grow so big that cats target them less.

As briefly mentioned, the videos revealed that when there were cats around, the rats would hesitate to go out in the open and spend more time around their safe spaces.

Because rats would hide more, this may explain why people believe cats are effective to eradicate rats and continue releasing cats as a “natural” rat control method. People don’t see a lot of rats and assume that the cats have been victorious, but in actuality, the rats were changing and adapting.

Cats can actually hunt or predate city rats, but only under the right conditions. Co-author Michael A. Deutsch added, “The cat must be hungry, have no alternative less-risky food source, and usually needs the element of surprise.”

There’s just one little problem: cats will find a way to not have less-risky food source, as there are a lot of other animals around them. People who like cats and happen to find them may also give them free food because they look cute, which makes it more impossible for the conditions to happen (I’m guilty of this, of course).

And well, let’s just say that cats like the easier way better.

“If we can get free meals, why eat our kills?”

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine discovered that most domestic cats don’t like the idea of contrafreeloading.

Seventeen cats were tested in this study. They were given a food puzzle and a tray of food. The puzzle wasn’t very hard, in fact it allowed the cats to see the food easily—they just need to do a little bit of work to extract it.

The result? If there was food easily available in the tray, cats wouldn’t spend much time working out a simple puzzle to get their food. And it’s not like they all didn’t know how puzzles work, as some of the cats had the experience.

Lead author Mikel Delgado said, “It wasn’t that cats never used the food puzzle, but cats ate more food from the tray, spent more time at the tray and made more first choices to approach and eat from the tray rather than the puzzle.”

According to Delgado, cats are very different than other species like rodents, wolves, or giraffes which prefer to work for their food. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload,” Delgado said.

Another thing that the study found is that cats which were more active still preferred the food in the tray. Although the limitation of this tudy was that the puzzles might not have stimulated their natural hunting behavior, which usually involves stalking and ambushing.

Reduce surplus killings

Delgado stated that the study didn’t mean to dismiss food puzzles, as they could be an important enrichment activity for cats to reduce wildlife hunting.

As briefly mentioned in the University of Exeter study, cats have an instinctive drive to hunt.

So, combining with the fact that cats dislike bigger preys, they hunt “just because”, and like freeloading, what cat owners can do is play a lot with them (at least five to ten minutes a day), feed them premium meaty diet, and equip them with collars that will alert the wildlife. Although, still, the best option for native wildlife is to keep them indoors.

And if your city has a rat problem and you want cats to get rid of those rats, maybe hold the urge to give the cats some food no matter how effectively they try to manipulate you with their cute meows and behaviors.


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