Saving Birds from Cats: Simple Strategies to Protect Feathered FriendsApr 29, 2022 ● By Karen Shaw Becker
When they’re roaming outdoors, domesticated cats turn into natural-born predators. According to the American Bird Conservancy, domestic felines are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the U.S., killing an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals and reptiles in the wild.
New studies suggest ways to let a cat enjoy the outdoors without endangering winged species.
Use Rainbow-Colored Ruff Collars
A small study by the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) suggests that when bright, rainbow-colored ruff collars are placed on free-roaming cats, it reduces the number of birds they kill. Birds have excellent color vision, and the flashy collars work as an early warning system of impending stealth attacks. “To the bird, this rainbow color stands out like a sore thumb,” says Ken Otter, chair of the UNBC Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. “It’s the opposite of a hunter’s camo.”
Another study at the UK University of Exeter focused on 219 cats whose owners regularly let them hunt outside. The researchers divided the cats into six groups, including a control group that didn’t change their habits. For 12 weeks, the owners took pictures of every animal their cats brought home and found that collar covers like those used in the Canadian study reduced the numbers of captured birds by 42 percent.
Feed Them a Fresh Meat Diet
The UK researchers found that when cats were fed a high-meat protein, grain-free food, they brought home 36 percent fewer dead birds and other wildlife. Because cats are strict carnivores, a balanced diet rich in fresh animal meat, fed raw or gently cooked (rather than rendered meat or meat meal), meets their nutritional needs and reduces their urge to kill prey animals. A feline family member will do best with a diet that replicates that of captured prey: high in moisture content with excellent-quality meat, moderate amounts of high-quality animal fat and a very low percentage of carbohydrates. This means absolutely no kibble.
Play with a Cat Daily
Households in which owners engaged in five to 10 minutes of daily object play with their cats (using, for example, an interactive feather toy like Da Bird) reported a 25 percent decrease in captured prey, according to the UK researchers.
“Cats who are young and still kittenish will play with almost anything. Older cats who’ve been around the block a few times and know how to hunt and play with their toys do tend to get bored more easily,” explains feline behaviorist Marci Koski, Ph.D. “I recommend having a number of different lures and wand toys in your toolbox.”
Avoid Cat Bells or Puzzle Feeders
Cat bells have “no discernible effect” on cats’ prey catch, the UK researchers report. Puzzle feeders containing kibble actually increased killed prey by 33 percent, perhaps because of cats’ “inability to easily access food and resulting hunger or frustration,” they write.
Have Them Hunt Indoors for Food
To ease boredom, give a cat opportunities to “hunt” for their food indoors. Try separating his daily portion of food into three to eight small meals, fed throughout the day in a variety of puzzle toys, or indoor hunting feeder mice. Or, hide his food bowls in various locations around the house. Start with one bowl in his usual spot, and then place his food portion into additional bowls in other areas where he is sure to find them. If there is more than one cat, keep the bowls in separate areas of the house.
Give Cats Safe Outdoor Access
For reasons of safety and overall health and longevity, cats should be kept indoors, but with regular supervised access to the outdoors. Training her to walk on a harness and leash can be an ideal way to allow safe, controlled access to the great outdoors. An alternative is a catio (cat patio), which is a safe outdoor enclosure that allows a kitty secure access to the outdoors. The enclosure should be open-air, allowing the cat to feel fresh air and sunlight, but shielded enough to prevent escape or a predator from getting inside. It also keeps birds safe.
Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker has spent her career empowering animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to extend the life and well-being of their animals.