Camera traps and webcams have revolutionised
wildlife research, allowing views into the secret lives of some of the planet’s
most elusive creatures. They’ve also thrown light on the goings-on of a more
familiar, yet still mysterious beast – the domestic cat.
Studies such as the The National Geographic and
University of Georgia Kitty Cams
Project, which attached portable webcams to 60 free-ranging pet cats'
collars, have effectively answered the question that has long tantalised cat
Where does Felix go when he slips
under the garden gate, and what does he get up to? (And what’s wrong with the
lovely home I’ve provided for him?)
That lazy, two-timing, risk-loving
Well, Felix does a fair bit of lazing about,
maybe under a car or on a rooftop in the sun. Cats spend about 16 hours out of
24 resting. Not that there’s any shame in that: lions spend 20
hours a day lying around, conserving energy for the burst of speed they need to
bring down prey.
Felix may also be two-timing you, visiting your
neighbours for snacks and snuggles. Not necessarily because you’re depriving him
of either commodity, but just because he can.
More seriously, he probably takes risks:
crossing roads; facing off with strange dogs, cats and wildlife (not to mention
dodgy humans); exploring drains and crawlspaces where he might get trapped; and
sampling substances you certainly didn’t give him (like stormwater runoff and
the old potato peels I once observed my own well-fed cat grazing on in the
gutter). Male cats are more prone to risky behavior than females, as are frisky
Even more seriously: Felix may well be killing
things. Lots of things.
We knew this, even the most sentimental cat ladies
and gents among us. Some of us are even a little proud of Felix or Missy’s
hunting prowess. But we hadn’t fully realised the amount and variety of animals
hunted, simply because we couldn't see most of the trophies – till
The Kitty Cams Project found that 44% of their
feline subjects hunted, bagging on average two prey animals a week. Of these,
they left 49% where they’d caught them; ate 28%; and brought 23% home, to no
doubt less than grateful humans. Male and female cats spent about the same
amount of time hunting, and both hunted more in the warmer months and less as
they started getting elderly.
Not just a cat-and-mouse
Unfortunately, cats don’t limit their hunting
to rounding up rodent pests, the job humans domesticated them for in the first
place. Their haul worldwide includes all manner of small creatures, indigenous
wildlife species too. Rats and mice don’t even top the list. The Kitty Cam cats’
most popular prey were Carolina anoles (small lizards).
Two recent student projects on cat predation in
Cape Town around Table Mountain and the suburb of Glencairn, which is adjacent
to a wetland, found that prey included a range of wild vertebrates
-- shrews, golden moles, geckos, snakes and
sunbirds, among others.
Dr Rob Simmons of the Percy Fitzpatrick
Institute, University of Cape Town, who supervised the research, says that local cat owners
report even such exotic prey as scorpions and baboon spiders, and one innovative
hunter who likes to sit on the roof and nab bats as they flit past.
Cats’ hunting trips generate some alarming
statistics. A study published last month in Nature Communications
estimates that free-ranging cats (owned pets and feral cats) in the USA kill
1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually – prompting the
researchers to speculate that cats are likely the single greatest source of
anthropogenic (i.e. human-linked) mortality for US birds and mammals.
Feral cats are thought to cause most of this
carnage, but Simmons points out that in some parts of the world, such as South
Africa, owned free-ranging cats may be responsible for a higher portion of
wildlife mortality. Although owned cats aren’t driven to hunt by hunger, they
often have a higher density than their feral counterparts. In Glencairn for
example, the density of owned domestic cats is a staggering 300 per square
The US wildlife mortality figures may sound
exaggerated, but Simmons says that domestic cat predation has been
underestimated until recently:
“Scientists knew domestic cat hunting was a
significant threat to wildlife, but the Kitty Cams study, for instance, suggests
that the predation rate is four-fold greater than had been thought.
"The Cape Town research indicates that cats in
this area alone are killing between 3.9 million and 5.9 million animals each
year – and I would say that’s a conservative estimate.”
Cats living on the urban edge i.e. where the
built urban environment starts to merge into natural vegetation or rural areas,
hunt further from home and have a higher kill rate.
No bad cats, just short-sighted
Before we start putting the blame on cats,
though, it’s important to remember that, as is often the case with 21st century
environmental problems, it’s really our fault. Most of the species we’ve tamed
for food or companionship have multiplied
prodigiously along with us, into the millions or billions.
It's because we domesticated cats 10 000 years
ago and then fell in love with them that there are now over 500 million
worldwide, many of which are strays with no choice but to fend for themselves,
tooth and claw.
Simmons feels that we are seriously lagging
behind countries such as the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand in terms of
managing the cat predation problem: these countries regulate cat ownership in
several sensitive areas, for example residential areas bordering
Similarly, on our urban edges, such as where
residential Cape Town borders on the Table Mountain National Park, we should be
looking into reasonable restrictions on cat ownership and roaming.
Protecting wildlife - and protecting
It's clear cats pose a biodiversity threat, but
many cat owners want their pets to have freedom of movement and feel that an
indoor existence is unnatural and lacks stimulation.
However we should consider that most animal
protection societies, and many vets, argue that outdoor cats lead a far more
perilous existence than their indoor counterparts. In addition to the risks
mentioned earlier, they're also exposed to infectious diseases and
Fortunately there are several simple measures
that can significantly reduce both the impact of predation and risk to cats,
without banishing them indoors entirely:
- Put a bell on your cat's collar. Simmons says
this has been shown to reduce the kill rate by 50-60%. Also recommended is
the CatBib, which interferes with their
ability to pounce on prey, but not with other normal activities.
- Feed your cat regularly
- Keep your cat in at night
- Keep your cat confined to your garden. Garden
fauna won't be safe of course, but the impact should be considerably
- Schedule regular play sessions with your
feline companions. This helps keep them entertained and exercised (though it
probably hones hunting reflexes too), and may encourage them to stay closer to
- Apparently it’s possible to train most cats to
walk with a harness and leash from kittenhood, although this cat owner is
Not all cats require these measures; some are
fearsome hunters and others are mellow fluffballs; some need stricter reining in
because they live on nature reserve borders while others are inner-city cats who
seldom encounter wildlife. Older outdoor cats are also less of a worry: they
venture out less and Simmons says most of the Cape Town study cats had stopped
hunting by age 13.
If you want to do some cat sleuthing of your
own, you can buy a pet cam for about
$40 plus shipping. For a taste what to expect, check out the Kitty Cam kitties'
great stills and videos.
Loss, Will and Mara. 2013. The impact of
free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature
The UCT cat
predation studies were conducted by students Sharon George and Koebraa
crazy cat people