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Researchers from Reading and Royal Holloway, University of London, found that our beloved household pets kill up to 270 million prey every single year. But there is variation across the country, as suburban cats just on the edge of natural areas kill an average of 34 animals each year, the research suggested.
For those felines in more built-up areas, further away from green or natural spaces, the number drops to an average of 15 per year.
The researchers found that owners placing a bell on their beloved pets did not bring down the killing number, proposing that the cats in the study were “very good hunters and the owners had put a device on because they were aware of it”.
But those wearing a bell often brought back the most prey, the study highlighted.
They found that “wearing a bell was significantly associated with an increase in prey returns”, and, and “unexpectedly, bell wearing was associated with increased overall predation”.
Royal Holloway’s Dr Rebecca Thomas called the estimated 9.5 million cats in Britain “mini super predators” that were a non-native species.
She said: “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 cats on the cusp of green spaces killed more mammals during the course of the study, although cats living in both types of environments killed a similar number of birds, the researchers found.
However, those with more restricted access to natural land killed many more blackbirds, whereas robins were the favoured prey of cats in green spaces.
The results were based on tracking 79 cats in the counties of Berkshire and Hampshire over the space of a year.
The team looked at the predation rates of cats living within 100m of natural land, versus the felines based around one kilometre away from green space.
The researchers said: “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 to 270 million prey individuals per year.”
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But lead author Dr Tara Pirie also described a “fear effect” that the presence of the predator can have on its prey.
She wrote: “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.”
She continued: “This can reduce the survival of both adults and offspring.”
But as well as the active killing of prey, cats could also target surrounding animals and wildlife through carrying diseases lethal to their prey.
Dr Pirie added: “Cats can also carry diseases such as Toxoplasma gondii which can be transmitted to wildlife, again reducing their survival rate.”
And offering up increased portions of food in the hope of deterring hunter behaviour had little impact, the researchers said.
Dr Pirie explained that “it could be the movement of prey that simply triggers the hunting behaviour of the cat.”
The team rounded off by comparing the “great joy and companionship” cats bring to their owners with the “loss of tens of millions of animals each year” through feline hunting behaviour.
They wrote in the journal “Landscape and Urban Planning”: “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.”
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