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'Conservation win-win' - Playing with cats for 10 minutes significantly reduces hunting, study finds

Play time with your cat may seem like a great source of entertainment, but a new study suggests it could also be an easy way of saving wildlife.

A ginger kitten plays with a toy. Source: istock.com

Researchers from the UK's University of Exeter believe just 10 minutes of play a day could reduce by a quarter the amount of wildlife that a cat kills.

Meanwhile Forest and Bird says any research to help protect native wildlife from cats could be good for New Zealand.

The study took cats which already regularly hunt and bring home prey to their owners and tested a variety of methods hoped to curb that behaviour.

It also found cats fed a high meat-protein, grain-free diet brought home a third less prey.

However getting cats to solve a puzzle before eating had the reverse effect; they wound up bringing home a third more prey.

"While keeping cats indoors is the only sure-fire way to prevent hunting, some owners are worried about the welfare implications of restricting their cat's outdoor access," co-author Robbie McDonald says. 

"Our study shows that - using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods - owners can change what the cats themselves want to do."

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Bells and bright collars are often recommended to interfere with cats' hunting, by alerting their potential prey to the risk they face.

"Although these measures might successfully impede hunting, they do not repress the cats' instinct, tendency or desire to hunt," the researchers write.

It found they weren't as effective as when the owners tried playing with their pets or changing their food, as well as being less likely to be still used after the trial.

The authors say previous attempts to reduce hunting haven't really considered the fulfillment of cats' physiological and behavioural requirements.

"Yet our study has shown that modifications to diet, and behavioural enrichment with object play, both affect cats such that they capture and bring home significantly fewer wild animals."

Samantha Lincoln, programme manager of Forest & Bird's Ark in the Park, says the study could be good news for New Zealand's wildlife.

"This is a UK study, and the situation is much worse in Aotearoa where our wildlife hasn't evolved to deal with cats," she told 1 NEWS.

"Aotearoa's biodiversity is in crisis, and any research that provides useful ways to minimise the impact of domestic cats on wildlife is good for Aotearoa."

Around 1.12 million birds are killed by cats in New Zealand each year, Forest and Bird estimates.

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The researchers say New Zealanders aren't keen to keep their cats indoors - which would be the ultimate solution to protect wildlife, and Forest and Bird's preferred solution for cat owners.

"As effective as it might be in principle, permanent confinement is unpopular among cat owners in many societies, including... New Zealand, where containment to enclosures and 24-hour confinement were among the measures least likely to be adopted by owners," they say.

Instead, things like changing diet or playing with your pet more could be more likely to be widely adopted, the researchers say.

"Positive interventions, aimed at benefiting cats and appealing to owners, can reduce cats’ tendencies to hunt, and might therefore form the basis of a conservation win-win."

Bells and bright collars cut the number of birds hunted in half, but had "no discernible effects" on the number of mammals killed.

"Aotearoa is a community of cat lovers, but this doesn’t mean we can’t also care for our native species," Lincoln says.

"If we want to be responsible cat owners, we need to microchip, register, and neuter our cats, keep them at home to keep both our cats and our native species safer, and consider a brightly coloured collar to keep birds safer."

The research was published in Current Biology on Friday.

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