Charmingly and disastrously at the same time, love is blind. And, our myopic affections extend to our cats. This is the unsurprising, but important, conclusion from a new study of 86 cats and their owners in two UK villages .
The 86 cats returned between one and two prey per month on average to their owners. But, as expected from previous research, cats varied a lot in their propensity to kill and bring the kill home. Twenty-five cats did not return any prey but others returned over 10* prey items per month**. All types of wildlife were killed – reptiles, birds and mammals – and most were native wildlife. Despite this large variation, when cat-owners were asked at the beginning of the study to estimate how many animals their cat routinely killed most could not accurately predict their cats actual impact on wildlife.
This finding on its own, while amusing, is not the most important finding from the study. The cat owners also completed a questionnaire after the study, when they were informed about their cats actual level of killing, to measure for any change in their attitudes about the impact of cats on wildlife, and their attitude to strategies for reducing that impact.
Not only were cat owners unlikely to know the extent of their cats killing but those with cats that killed most were not more likely to believe cats, generally speaking, harmed wildlife. And, whether they agreed or disagreed with management strategies to reduce their cats’ impact, like bringing them indoors, were not influenced by their cat’s killing. Importantly therefore, cat owners were not swayed in their opinions by more accurate information about their cat harming wildlife.
Not only, therefore, is cat-love blind but cat owners were also, unfortunately, stubborn in their adoration – unwilling to change our views and behaviour, even when evidence for the need to stares them in the face.
The study beautifully illustrates the political and socio-ecological problem of reducing cats’ impacts on wildlife – cat owners’ beliefs about cat impacts on wildlife and willingness to support measures to reduce their cats impact are not informed by reality or transformed by better information. People love their cats and love is blind.
This would seem to be an intractable problem. Cat owners have fundamentally different attitudes, beliefs and priorities to others. And, without cat owner support government or community efforts to reduce cat impacts have a low chance of success or, at least, will be too slowly implemented, if at all.
But there is way through. We could work with cat owners love interest and appeal to their prejudices. It is, after-all, entirely understandable that caring for another living thing, in this case a cat, shapes our opinions and behaviour. This is a universal condition of being human and if we are going to find a solution to the cats-and-wildlife problem, other people will need to be sympathetic, not antagonistic, to it.
This is our approach in new research colleagues and I are conducting to understand what would be required to change cat owners’ behaviour.
First, consider that the relationship between the cat owner and cat is critical to reducing a cats impact on wildlife. How owners care for their cats changes the opportunities that cats have to hunt wildlife.
Consider also that those same changes in how cat owners care for cats might not only reduce cats’ opportunities to hunt but also improve the welfare of the cats. Were this the case, then we have a chance of convincing cat owners to reduce the impact of their cats by appealing to their interest in the health and welfare of their cat – appealing to their prejudice.
What changes in cat husbandry are possible that would reduce domestic cats’ opportunities to kill and improve cat welfare?
Lastly, consider whose opinions cat owners respect. Who has the greatest normative or expert influence on cat owners attitudes, beliefs and behaviour towards their cat? We might cooperate with those people to change cat owner behaviour. The goal of our research has been to answer these questions.
The truth is that our domestic cats have a very large impact and that we might protect very much biodiversity and wildlife if we changed the way we live with cats. My hope is that the same changes in cat owner behaviour that would reduce cats’ impact on wildlife would also improve cat welfare. Its win-win politics and win-win ecology. And, its a scientific and evidential solution.
* While the text of the article describes up to 10.25 prey per month the graphic (Figure 1) displays up to eight per month. This appears to be an inconsistency or error. However, I wrote to the authors and they confirmed that the cat that averaged 10.25 prey items every month was not entered on the graphic because its owner did not make a prediction.
** recall that the prey that a cat brings home to its owner is likely to be a fraction of the prey actually killed because some are not brought back to the home. They are either consumed or left where they were killed.
- McDonald, J.L. Maclean M, Evans MR, Hodgson DJ. 2015. Reconciling actual and perceived rates of predation by domestic cats.Ecology and Evolution 5 (14): 2745-2753. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1553.