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5 things to remember if your cat’s a hunter!

Cats have evolved as predators - it’s what they do. Unlike dogs, who can survive off vegetables for a while and live together in close-knit packs, the cat is a solitary hunter who cannot survive without meat. And no matter how much you feed them, most cats have an inbuilt desire to hunt their own prey, which cannot be trained out of them. In fact, the only truly effective way to prevent a cat from hunting is to prevent access to prey - by keeping them locked up indoors.

Informative image: Hunter cat

So, what are the risks?

1) Parasites

The most important examples are tapeworms. Tapeworms of the Taenia and Echinococcus species are contracted by eating prey animals that are infected with the worms (although Echinococcus multilocularis, the species that mainly affects cats, isn’t present in the UK).
Other parasites cats contract from their prey include ticks, some species of which feed on rodents and other small mammals.

2) Infections

There are a number of infections that cats can contract from their prey. In the UK, the most important are Toxoplasmosis and Leptospirosis.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled amoeba-like organism. In cats, it usually causes few or no symptoms, but when a rat or mouse is infected, the Toxo organisms cause it to lose its fear of cats. The cat then eats the rodent and becomes infected. Toxo from an infected cat can infect humans, and it can cause encephalitis, brain damage, and miscarriages or stillbirths; it may also be associated with changing our behaviour, making us take more risks.

Leptospirosis (also known as Weils Disease) is caused by Leptospira bacteria, which are typically spread in rodent urine. If a cat eats an infected rat, they too may become infected. However, cats are pretty resistant to this infection, and many will show no signs of disease - they may, however, shed the Leptospires in their urine, potentially infecting humans and dogs, who are much more susceptible. Symptoms include fever, jaundice, and kidney failure.
Other bacteria carried by the prey animals may also lead to disease - typically stomach upsets due to Salmonella and Campylobacter (especially from birds).

3) Trauma and Wounds

Hunting cats are at a much higher risk of injury than most non-hunting animals - from their victims, from other predators, or from traffic. A rat or mouse, cornered by a hungry cat, has nothing to lose by biting - and sometimes they get lucky. Rodent bites often become infected, leaving wounds over the face and neck of the cat.

Of course, there are other predators out there too - other cats, foxes, badgers and sometimes dogs. These may see a cat poaching on their territory and decide to either drive them off, or even make a meal out of them! Cat fights usually result in puncture wounds and lacerations, and are rarely fatal, but foxes, badgers and dogs are more than capable of causing deep lacerations, broken bones, and crushed organs in an unwary cat.

Traffic is always a risk to an outdoor cat - and hunting cats, concentrating on stalking their prey, may be at a higher risk as they might not notice an oncoming vehicle until it’s too late.

4) Secondary poisoning

Rat and mouse poisons, especially the newer anticoagulants, don’t act immediately. They work by preventing the blood from clotting, so the rodent is gradually weakened by internal bleeding until eventually it bleeds to death. Unfortunately, in the early stages, a poisoned rat or mouse may seem to your cat to be an easy meal - and when they eat their prey, they also consume the poison. The symptoms are of abnormal bleeding, typically from the mouth or in the faeces, in the eyes, and under the skin (causing rashes). Anticoagulant poisoning is treatable, but needs to be caught early!

5) Effect on Wildlife

A survey by the Mammal Society found that British cats kill 275 million wild animals each year - although this is almost certainly a massive under-estimate, as it only counted those animals brought home to their owners by the cat. Of these, about 55 million are birds.

How significant this is as a cause of wildlife loss is unclear (the RSPB, for example, argue that it is insignificant for common garden birds, whereas other organisations and researchers think it is more important), but certainly, cats have the potential to devastate wildlife populations, given the chance.

So, what can be done?

Ultimately, the only way you can stop your cat from hunting is by keeping them indoors 24/7, and then only if no mice, birds or other animals get into the house. Whether that’s fair to your cat depends on their personality - and that’s a decision you have to make.

If your cat hunts, even occasionally, it is vital that you keep them up to date with a modern worming medication - talk to our vets or nurses for advice. It is also really important to spot any signs of ill-health early, and get them checked out by one of our vets.

Use of a bell on a (well-fitting, safety-release) collar may also help, by warning potential prey that the cat is coming, meaning the cat is less likely actually to catch any prey. However, studies show that many cats are able to adapt their hunting technique to make this progressively less effective! A “beeper” on a collar cannot be disabled, but is more expensive if/when they manage to lose it.

If you are concerned about your cat’s hunting, give us a call for advice!