A cat looks like it does and behaves like it does because it’s a hunter. Millions of years of evolution have given it the senses, behaviours and the body to be very successful at this.
Obviously, therefore, we can’t remove this drive, but we can try to control it a little by altering the times we let our cats out – for example by keeping them in at dawn and dusk when small creatures are most active.
Birds, of course, are active during the day and we attract them to our gardens with food during the winter months, giving the cat a very tempting focus of activity. So it’s up to us to try and protect the birds that we’re feeding and attracting. Some of this is practical – make sure the bird table is high enough to prevent easy access for the cat, have it on a pole which is difficult to climb and place it away from structures the cat could use to get on to it. Position it away from bushes or other places where the cat can hide. If you’re hanging up a feeder put it on a bracket or branch which the cat can’t access.
You may be aware of a study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK looking at whether bells or ultrasonic devices on collars can help to cut down the number of prey animals caught by cats. Sometimes this seems like a very ‘them’ and ‘us’ topic. However, if you think that supporters of cats and birds are two distinct groups who never speak to each other you’d actually be very wrong. Indeed, the RSPB asked the advice of this charity when they were putting the study together, to ensure that the collars they used were safe and that the cats were chosen carefully. They also recruited some of the cats that tried the collars through their own members – many, many cat owners are bird lovers too. Animal welfare organisations were very interested in the results of the survey and probably delighted that it was the RSPB who funded and ran it. Carrying out such a study properly and scientifically is no small task and requires considerable financial investment.
If you look at the way many cats hunt, they stay still or move very slowly indeed until the final pounce, when, usually, it’s too late to escape, so it seems dubious whether a bell would work. However, the study showed that bells and an ultrasonic peeping device did indeed help cut down catches by a third to a half.
So, armed with this information, what should cat owners do? It does, of course, raise the thorny issue of collars and safety for the cats that wear them (see our information on how to choose and fit a collar), but the most important thing is to choose a safe one. You should also check out the bell. Some have tapering slits which can trap a cat’s claw if, for example, it scratched its neck. It’s a small detail, but the cat needs to be kept safe too.
Would a bell tinkling in the cat’s ears all day long be cruel? In an ideal world cats wouldn’t wear collars. However, many owners already need their cats to wear one as a means of carrying identification (if they stray or get run over someone may take the initiative and contact them), or to hold magnets or electronic devices to open the cat flap, so adding a bell won’t add to the risk.
However, we don’t live in isolation. In many countries birds are under pressure from many sides, from loss of habitat and from cars among many other things. The decline in bird numbers is not down to cats, but they are one of the many factors that can put pressure on some species that are already under threat. If a bell does work then we need to look at our individual cats and balance the risks and the benefits. Many cats don’t bother to catch anything. Others are keen hunters. Age too is a factor – keen one- to three-year-olds which have energy to burn and love the outdoors may well be candidates for a bell, while older cats that prefer hunting down their food bowl and the warmest spot for a snooze may not.
What about the ultimate solution to bird or animal safety – keeping cats indoors? Again it’s a choice of balancing the risks versus the benefits. In countries where the indigenous birds are under dire threat because they evolved without such predators, and are now falling prey to cats, then cat curfews or keeping cats in may be necessary to preserve a species. On islands such as the Galapagos, again where animals and birds evolved without such predators, cat population control may be necessary. Everyone must make up their own mind based on knowing their cat and its habits, the risks to and from the environment where they live and what wildlife is around.