Pet cats are responsible for killing up to 270 million animals a year in Britain’s suburbs alone, it has been claimed.
The problem is likely to have a major impact on local eco-systems and the environment – with the researchers even suggesting that restricting cat access should be considered in areas where ‘sensitive wildlife’ is found.
Cats that live on the edge of natural areas are thought to be responsible for 34 deaths each year, according to a new study.
The authors found that other suburban cats, who are surrounded by houses and further from natural habitats, killed less than half of that total – an average of 15 each.
Cats in both types of areas killed similar numbers of birds, but those on the edge of green spaces killed more mammals, experts from the University of Reading and Royal Holloway discovered. But cats with easy access to natural areas killed more robins compared to city dwellers who tended to target blackbirds.
Contrary to previous research, wearing a bell was no deterrent – and those cats actually brought home the most prey, the study found. However, experts speculated that may have been because those pets were particularly effective hunters whose owners had attempted to limit their killing.
Rabbits, voles, bats, hedgehogs, squirrels, birds and even a grass snake were among the prey mentioned in the study.
Dr Rebecca Thomas, from Royal Holloway University of London, explained: ‘(Cats) are a non-native species.
‘They reach incredibly – and unnaturally – high densities, especially in suburban environments.
‘They get fed by their owners and given veterinary care so you could consider them mini super predators.’
The study estimated that there are some 9.5 million pet cats in Britain.
But they are responsible for more than just direct killing, lead author Dr Tara Pirie, explained.
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‘Just the presence of a predator can cause wildlife to change their behaviour either reducing feeding through heightened vigilance or staying away from a nest leaving it exposed, for example,’ said Dr Pirie, who is now based at Surrey University.
‘This can reduce the survival of both adults and offspring.
‘Cats can also carry diseases such as [parasite] Toxoplasma gondii which can be transmitted to wildlife, again reducing their survival rate.’
The study, published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, tracked the movements and amount of prey brought home by 79 cats living across Berkshire and Hampshire, over a year.
They compared the predation rates of those living within 100 metres of natural land and those living around 1 km from it.
‘A simple extrapolation based on the predation rates found in this study suggests that the 9.5 million pet cats in Great Britain may kill in the region of 160-270 million prey individuals per year,’ the team wrote.
The authors noted the positive impact cats have on human mental health, but continued: ‘They also cause the loss of tens of millions of animals each year through predation, which in some cases may go beyond animal welfare concerns and become conservation concerns.
‘It is only by understanding the possible negative ecological effects pet cats may be exerting on their local biodiversity that we can begin to develop appropriate approaches to environmentally-sensitive cat ownership.’
Providing more food for your cat is unlikely to stop them hunting, however.
Dr Pirie explained: ‘Leaving food out does not appear to reduce prey returns.
‘This does make sense because cats are intrigued by movement – think of a cat playing with a toy – and it could be the movement of prey that simply triggers the hunting behaviour of the cat.’
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