Cat predation on wildlife

Cat predation on wildlife is the result of the natural instincts and behavior of both feral and domesticated cats to hunt small prey, including wildlife. Some people view this as a desirable phenomenon, such as in the case of barn cats and other cats kept for the intended purpose of pest control; however, contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that cats are an effective means of rodent control, and ecologists oppose their use for this purpose because of the disproportionate harm they do to beneficial native wildlife. As an invasive species[1] and superpredator,[2] they do considerable ecological damage.[2] In Australia, hunting by cats helped to drive at least 20 native mammals to extinction,[3] and continues to threaten at least 124 more.[3] Their introduction has caused the extinction of at least 33 endemic species on islands throughout the world.[2] Feral and domestic cats kill billions of birds in the United States every year, where songbird populations continue to decline.[4]

Cats kill billions of wild birds each year. This feral cat near Brisbane has caught a Pale-headed rosella.


A 2013 study by Scott R. Loss and others of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that free-ranging domestic cats (mostly unowned) are the top human-caused threat to wildlife in the United States, killing an estimated 1.3 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.[4][5] These figures were much higher than previous estimates for the U.S.[4]:2 Unspecified species of birds native to the U.S. and mammals including mice, shrews, voles, squirrels and rabbits were considered most likely to be preyed upon by cats.[4]:4

Perhaps the first U.S. study that pointed to predation by cats on wildlife as a concern was ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush's 1916 report for the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It.[6]

A feral cat with an American Robin. Plate from Forbush (1916).

Island settings pose particular challenges for wildlife. A 2001 study identified cats alone as responsible for the plight of some island bird species, such as the Townsend's shearwater, socorro dove, and the Marquesan ground dove.[7][7]:400 The same study identified the greatest cause of endangerment of birds as habitat loss and degradation, with at least 52% of endangered birds affected,[7]:399 while introduced species on islands, such as domestic cats, rats and mustelids,[7]:403 affected only 6% of endangered birds.[7]:399 Other studies caution that removing domestic cats from islands can have unintended consequences, as increasing rat populations can put native bird[8] and mammal species[9][10] at risk.

Impact by locationEdit


Cats in Australia have been found to have European origins.[11] This is important to note because of their effect on native species. Feral cats in Australia have been linked to the decline and extinction of various native animals. They have been shown to cause a significant impact on ground nesting birds and small native mammals.[12]

Feral cats have also hampered any attempts to re-introduce threatened species back into areas where they have become extinct as the cats have hunted and killed the newly released animals.[13] Numerous Australian environmentalists claim the feral cat has been an ecological disaster in Australia, inhabiting most ecosystems except dense rainforest, and being implicated in the extinction of several marsupial and placental mammal species.[14] Some inhabitants have begun eating cat meat to mitigate the harm that wild cats do to the local wildlife.[15]

New ZealandEdit

The fauna of New Zealand has evolved in isolation for millions of years without the presence of mammals (apart from a few bat species). Consequently, birds dominated the niches occupied by mammals and many became flightless. The introduction of mammals after settlement by Māori from about the 12th century had a huge effect on indigenous biodiversity. European explorers and settlers brought cats on their ships and the presence of feral cats was recorded from the latter decades of the 19th century.[16] It is estimated that feral cats have been responsible for the extinction of six endemic bird species and over 70 localised subspecies as well as depleting bird and lizard species.[17]

United KingdomEdit

In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds states that there is no scientific evidence that cat predation is:

having any impact on bird populations UK-wide [...] This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds [...] Those bird species that have undergone the most serious population declines in the UK (such as skylarks, tree sparrows and corn buntings) rarely encounter cats, so cats cannot be causing their declines. Research shows that these declines are usually caused by habitat change or loss, particularly on farmland.[18]

Nick Forde, a trustee of the UK charity SongBird Survival, said the RSPB's claim of no evidence was disingenuous because adequate studies had not been done, in part due to the RSPB's position. Forde accused the RSPB of downplaying the effect of cat predation on birds in the UK to avoid offending "old ladies who might own cats", who he said are some of the RSPB's most generous benefactors. The RSPB's head of nature policy, Jeff Knott, denied that the agency was downplaying the effects of predation by cats. Knott said that cat predation was not a conservation issue, and that the RSPB was not afraid of potentially offending its members. He added that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had no plans to spend funds studying the effects of cat predation on birds.[19]

In the UK, it is common to allow pet cats access to the outdoors.[20] SongBird Survival considers that "the prevailing line that 'there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats is having any impact on bird populations in UK' is simply no longer tenable",[21] and that "no study has ever examined the impact of cats on songbirds at the population level; evidence shows that the recovering sparrowhawk population in the 1970-80s resulted in the decline of some songbird populations; cats kill around 3 times as many songbirds as sparrowhawks; the mere presence of cats near birds' nests was found to decrease provision of food by a third while the resultant mobbing clamour from parent birds led in turn to increased nest predation by crows and magpies; [and that] it is therefore far more likely that cats have an even greater impact on songbird populations than sparrowhawks".[21]

Sir David Attenborough in his Christmas Day, 2013, edition of BBC Radio 4 programme Tweet Of The Day said "cats kill an extraordinarily high number of birds in British gardens".[22] Asked whether cat owners should buy bell collars for their pets at Christmas, he replied: "that would be good for the robins, yes".[22]


Consequences of introductionEdit

Lyall's wren became extinct within two years of the introduction of cats to Stephens Island.

Many islands host ecologically naive animal species. That is, animals that do not have predator responses for dealing with predators such as cats.[23] Feral cats introduced to such islands have had a devastating impact on these islands' biodiversity.[24]

They have been implicated in the extinction of several species and local extinctions, such as the hutias from the Caribbean, the Guadalupe storm petrel from the Pacific coast of Mexico, and Lyall's wren. In a statistical study, they were a significant cause for the extinction of 40% of the species studied.[24] Moors and Atkinson wrote, in 1984, "no other alien predator has had such a universally damaging effect."[23]

Feral cats, along with rabbits, some sea birds, and sheep, form the entire large animal population of the remote Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Although exotic mammals form the bulk of their diet, cats' impact on seabirds is very important.[25]


Because of the damage cats cause in islands and some ecosystems, many conservationists working in the field of island restoration have worked to remove feral cats. (Island restoration involves the removal of introduced species and reintroducing native species.) As of 2004, 48 islands have had their feral cat populations eradicated, including New Zealand's network of offshore island bird reserves[26] and Australia's Macquarie Island.

Larger projects have also been undertaken, including their complete removal from Ascension Island. The cats, introduced in the 19th century, caused a collapse in populations of nesting seabirds. The project to remove them from the island began in 2002, and the island was cleared of cats by 2004. Since then, seven species of seabird that had not nested on the island for 100 years have returned.[27]

In some cases, the removal of cats had unintended consequences. An example is Macquarie Island, where the removal of cats caused an explosion in the number of rabbits, that started feeding of the island's vegetation, thus leaving the birds without protection to other predators, like rats and other birds[28][29][30] even if the eradication was positioned within an integrated pest management framework.[31] The removal of the rats and rabbits was scheduled for 2007 and it could take up to seven years and cost $24 million.[32]

Mice and ratsEdit

Cats are sometimes intentionally released into urban environments on the popular assumption that they will control the rat population; but there is little scientific basis for this. The reality is that cats find rats to be large and formidable prey, and so they preferentially hunt defenseless wildlife such as lizards and songbirds instead. Scientists and conservationists oppose the use of cats as a form of rodent control because they are so inefficient at destroying pest species that the harm they do to native species in the process outweighs any benefit.[33][34][35]

In 2002, feral cats introduced to a flower market in Los Angeles, California, were noted to have helped lower rat populations.[36] In Chicago's 47th Ward, feral cats were introduced in 2012 in the hope that it would help a rat problem there.[37]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Price Persson, Charlotte (26 November 2017). "Scientist: Australia's feral cats should be eradicated". ScienceNordic.
  2. ^ a b c Nogales, Manuel; Vidal, Eric; et al. (1 October 2013). "Feral Cats and Biodiversity Conservation: The Urgent Prioritization of Island Management" (PDF). BioScience. 63 (10): 804–810. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.10.7.
  3. ^ a b "Tackling Feral Cats and Their Impacts - Frequently asked questions" (PDF). Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Loss, Scott R.; Will, Tom; Marra, Peter P. (2013). "The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States". Nature Communications. 4: 1396. doi:10.1038/ncomms2380. PMID 23360987. Archived from the original on 2014-09-04.
  5. ^ Morelle, Rebecca (29 January 2013). "Cats killing billions of animals in the US". BBC News. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  6. ^ Edward Howe Forbush, "The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It", Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State Board of Agriculture, Economic Biology Bulletin 42, 1916.
  7. ^ a b c d e Collar, N. J. (2001). Endangered Birds (PDF). 2. New York: Academic Press. p. 400. in Encyclopedia of Biodiversity
  8. ^ Fan, M; Kuang, Y; Feng, Z (September 2005). "Cats protecting birds revisited". Bull Math Biol. 67 (5): 1081–106. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/j.bulm.2004.12.002. PMID 15998496.
  9. ^ Hanna, Emily; et al. (April 2014). "Island mammal extinctions are determined by interactive effects of life history, island biogeography and mesopredator suppression". Global Ecology and Biogeography. 23 (4): 395–404. doi:10.1111/geb.12103.
  10. ^ Popkin, Gerald (29 August 2013). "Feral cats help some endangered mammals survive, report says". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  11. ^ Spencer, Peter B.S.; Yurchenko, Andrey A.; David, Victor A.; Scott, Rachael; Koepfli, Klaus-Peter; Driscoll, Carlos; O’Brien, Stephen J.; Menotti-Raymond, Marilyn (9 November 2015). "The Population Origins and Expansion of Feral Cats in Australia". Journal of Heredity. 107 (2): 104–114. doi:10.1093/jhered/esv095. PMC 4757960. PMID 26647063.
  12. ^ Dickman, Chris (May 1996). Overview of the Impacts of Feral Cats on Australian Native Fauna (PDF). The Director of National Parks and Wildlife – Australian Nature Conservation Agency – Institute of Wildlife Research. ISBN 978-0-642-21379-2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  13. ^ The Threat Of Feral Cats. (28 October 2011). Retrieved on 5 May 2013.
  14. ^ Robley, A.; Reddiex, B.; Arthur, T.; Pech, R.; Forsyth, D. (Sep 2004). "Interactions between feral cats, foxes, native carnivores, and rabbits in Australia" (PDF). CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems / Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 March 2011. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  15. ^ Mercer, Phil (2007-09-02). "Australians cook up wild cat stew". BBC News.
  16. ^ King, Carolyn (1984) Immigrant Killers. Auckland: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-558121-0
  17. ^ Eason, Charles T.; Morgan, David R. & Clapperton, B. Kay (1992). Toxic bait and baiting strategies for feral cats. University of Nebraska – Lincoln: Proceedings of the Fifteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference 1992.
  18. ^ "Are cats causing bird declines?" The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, accessed 23 June 2014.
  19. ^ Webster, Ben (30 December 2015). "RSPB accused of going soft on cats to appease donors". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 27 September 2020.
  20. ^ "In the UK, the vast majority of pet cats have free access to the outside world, or are at least allowed to go outside unsupervised for large parts of the day." "A world of difference – How cat ownership in America differs to the UK", Pets4Homes, accessed 1 September 2014.
  21. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-07-31. Retrieved 2017-03-22.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. ^ a b "Cats killing huge numbers of British birds, Sir David Attenborough warns". The Guardian. 10 December 2013.
  23. ^ a b Moors, P.J.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984). "Predation on seabirds by introduced animals, and factors affecting its severity" in Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. Cambridge: ICBP. ISBN 0-946888-03-5.
  24. ^ a b Barcott, Bruce (2 December 2007). "Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?". The New York Times.
  25. ^ Pontier, D.; E. Natoli; L. Say; F. Debias; J. Bried; J. Thioulouse; T. Micol & E. Natoli (2002). "The diet of feral cats (Felis catus L.) at five sites on the Grande Terre, Kerguelen archipelago" (PDF). Polar Biology. 25 (11): 833–837. doi:10.1007/s00300-002-0424-5.
  26. ^ Nogales, Manuel; Martin, Aurelio; Tershy, Bernie R.; Donlan, C. Josh; Veitch, Dick; Puerta, Nestor; Wood, Bill; Alonso, Jesus (2004). "A review of feral cat eradication on islands" (PDF). Conservation Biology. 18 (2): 310–319. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x. hdl:10261/22249.
  27. ^ Cat eradication from Ascension Island. (2014-01-23). Retrieved on 2015-11-01.
  28. ^ "Up against rats, rabbits and costs". The Sydney Morning Herald. 12 April 2007.
  29. ^ Fears for sub-antarctic island plagued by rabbits. ABC News (15 July 2006).
  30. ^ Draper, Michelle and La Canna, Xavier (14 January 2009) Cat kill devastates Macquarie Island. Nine News
  31. ^ Controversy on feral cat removal on Macquarie Island. (2013-05-14). Retrieved on 2015-11-01.
  32. ^ Macquarie Island World Heritage Area. Plan for the Eradication of Rabbits and Rodents on Macquarie Island. Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania.
  33. ^ Kobilinsky, Dana. "Rats! Feral cats fail at urban rodent control". The Wildlife Society. Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  34. ^ Parsons, Michael H.; Banks, Peter B.; Deutsch, Michael A.; Munshi-South, Jason (27 September 2018). "Temporal and Space-Use Changes by Rats in Response to Predation by Feral Cats in an Urban Ecosystem". Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. doi:10.3389/fevo.2018.00146. Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  35. ^ Solly, Meilan. "Cats Are Surprisingly Bad at Killing Rats". SMITHSONIANMAG.COM. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  36. ^ LeDuff, Charlie (17 September 2002). "Up, Down, In and Out in Beverly Hills: Rats". The New York Times.
  37. ^ "North Side’s 47th Ward Using Feral Cats To Catch Rats", CBS Chicago, 28 June 2012.

Further readingEdit