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Your fluffy house kitty may be a Killer Kat when you’re not around

As has been noted, domestic cats descend from predators well honed by evolution to be killers. Not since the days of raptors have such well-engineered killing machines silently stalked and taken down prey. House cats have been bred by humans for traits we find appealing for a lot less time than dogs (Sorry, cat vs dog lovers), so they’re a bit, more, well, raw might be the word in terms of evolutionary modifications. Now we can prove it!

LA Times) — In cooperation with the National Geographic Society’s CritterCam team, which attaches cameras to animals to record the activities of a variety of species, Lloyd and her colleagues recruited 60 cat owners in Athens, Ga. The owners attached the tiny cameras to the cats’ collars every morning when the animals were let out, then dowloaded the day’s images every night. Each animal was followed for seven to 10 days.

The team found that about 30% of the cats killed prey, an average of two animals per week. The cats brought home nearly a quarter of the animals they killed, ate 30% and left 49% to rot where they died. About 41% of the prey were lizards, snakes and frogs; mammals such as chipmunks and voles accounted for 25%; and birds only 12%. The low percentage of birds may be because they can fly, but with an estimated 74 million cats in the country, the total carnage is high.

That’s for presumably well fed and cared for domestic cats. Which makes me wonder how many pests feral cats are taking out. Maybe we owe those neglected critters more than we realize.

Comments

  1. The Lorax says

    I think the Egyptians had it right worshiping cats.

    Okay, well, not worshiping, but holding in high regard.

    Cats are awesome.

  2. says

    I saw a stray cat outside my house carrying a dead squirrel almost as big as the cat. It gripped the squirrel by the back, and its head and tail were both dragging the ground.

    … we call him R2. :)

  3. says

    I have read reports that in the absence of top predators (wolves,coyotes, etc) domestic cats are tremendously disruptive of local ecologies. The report was in Science News a year or two ago.

  4. blindrobin says

    Cats, feral and domiciled, are one of main reasons that our cities are not overrun by vermin. Human habitations and their middens attract vermin. Vermin attract predators. Everybody happy.

  5. embraceyourinnercrone says

    And this is why my three cats are indoor only pets. I love cats but they can be devastating to the local wild life. The other reasons they are not allowed out being that I live not too far from a busy street and I don’t want them to be roadkill and I live in Connecticut, the chance of them being bitten/mauled by the local wildlife is high, in my neighborhood alone we have: skunks, racoons, deer(and the lovely deer ticks!), coyotes,foxes,possums. My one little rescued dog is only let out on a leash or in the fenced back yard.

    When they want to observe the local birds I let my spoiled babies out on the three season porch, where the squirrels make fun of them from the trees…

  6. embertine says

    OK, I am a cat lover but the determinedly accusing eyes of Basement Cat up there in the header are FREAKING ME OUT.

    He is judging me and finding me wanting. HALP

  7. ambulocetacean says

    Blindrobin, vermin, really?

    Did you not notice the bit that read:

    About 41% of the prey were lizards, snakes and frogs; mammals such as chipmunks and voles accounted for 25%; and birds only 12%.

    Domestic cats kill native wildlife by the frigging dumpster full. In Australia they put enormous pressure on endangered/vulnerable species such as bandicoots and lyrebirds.

    http://www.berrymaninstitute.org/journal/spring2009/dickman_sp09.pdf

    Everybody happy? Not me.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    I live in an old wood-frame house near a swamp.

    Many nights I would hear rodents scrambling around in the walls; three or four times I encountered snakes slithering across the floor.

    Now I put a daily bowl of cat food in a nearby woodshed, for the benefit of a small colony of feral cats that happened by. (Ftr: I also, thanks to a local “Operation Catnip”, got them all neutered.)

    Now, about once a week, I hear a fierce feline brawl break out beneath the floorboards. But the mouse/snake problem has gone away. (Alas, I don’t hear as many owls as before, either.)

  9. didgen says

    I live in Oregon, have owned many cats. There have been a few birds taken by my cats and I grieve over them, far far more often I am presented with the corpse of a rat with a ten to eleven inch body not counting the tail. I don’t regret these so much, even though I have owned and loved some bi-colour pet rats. I am ambivalent about my cats opinion that I am such a crappy hunter that I need these gifts delivered.

  10. geocatherder says

    If you are being bothered by wildlife in the house, the best thing to do is seal up the house. Having said that, I understand the need for “barn cats” (semi-feral hunters) on a farm, or any kind of facility that stores rodent-attractants.

    But living in suburbia, outdoor cats are a menace to wildlife, and this is one of the reasons my cats are indoor cats. My neighbors’ cats hang out in my backyard, and do occasionally catch birds; I’d rather they didn’t. They also seem to think my garden is a giant litter box. Finally, they have fighting injuries and scars; one old tom, who I’m fond of, is too stupid to know when he’s been outclassed and shows up with missing chunks periodically. His life will undoubtedly be short, and it’s certainly been painful. Seems like a crappy way to keep a pet.

  11. schmeer says

    My indoor cat has been very helpful in controlling the mouse problem. Now I just need someone or something to remove mouse carcasses before
    my girlfriend finds them. She did not enjoy disposing of the mess and the dog won’t do anything until the dead thing smells good enough to roll in.

  12. busterggi says

    I knew that cats were killers the first time I slept at my folk’s house after both passed away and found the cat sitting on the pillow next to me just staring at me.

  13. Paul W., OM says

    That’s for presumably well fed and cared for domestic cats. Which makes me wonder how many pests feral cats are taking out.

    As I understand it, Ag scientists have studied this, and well-fed cats kill about as much prey as grossly underfed cats.

    The conventional wisdom that you should keep a cat underfed if you want it to catch mice (e.g., in your barn) is completely wrong.

    If you feed the cat well near where you want it to kill mice (e.g., in your barn), it will hang around there, and it’s prey drive will be just as strong.

    Apparently the prey drive in cats just isn’t much linked to actual hunger. Cats are just killing machines that will kill any little critters they can, without thinking about why, and after they’ve done that, they may go “hey, I’m hungry—and look, there’es food here!”

    It’s apparently the structure of the environment that links predation and eating, not a stepwise plan in the cat’s head.

    That’s what’s called “reactive planning” in cognitive science. You have a bag of plan snippets triggered by environmental cues, and the environment itself triggers them in the right order.

    (It’s rather like routine navigating from landmark to landmark by habit, without being able to map out the actual route ahead of time—you’re only reminded of the particular turns you need to make when you see a landmark and go “oh yeah, I turn right here.”)

  14. Paul W., OM says

    House cats have been bred by humans for traits we find appealing for a lot less time than dogs (Sorry, cat vs dog lovers), so they’re a bit, more, well, raw might be the word in terms of evolutionary modifications.

    As I understand it, cats have been modified about as much as dogs, but in a much less subtly selected way.

    Cat’s are very neotenic—i.e., retaining infantile or juvenile traits into adulthood.

    A domesticated cat is pretty much still a kitten, both mentally and physically. That’s why they all look pretty much alike if you shave them—they don’t develop into physical adults, which is where you’d get most of the differentiation between breeds, as in dogs.

    (Notice that puppies mostly look alike, much more so than adult dogs. It’s later development that elongates snouts or not, etc. In cats, that later development mostly just doesn’t happen—they’re grossly stunted.)

    Mentally, dogs are somewhat juvenile versions of wolves, but you’re mostly just taking advantage of wolf instincts when you domesticate them. (E.g., submission to the pack Alpha, etc.)

    Cat’s generally aren’t like that. You wouldn’t want an adult wild cat as pet, because they’re mostly asocial hunters. (Lion prides being an exception, I think.) Lone hunting animals just don’t have the right instincts to hang out with people and be pets.

    With domesticated cats, you take advantage of infantile instincts—you’re like mommy or maybe sometimes a littermate, to a cat that never grows up and goes off on its own.

    The bottom line, AIUI, is that we’ve domesticated dogs by turning several more or less independent genetic “knobs,” plus the general neoteny knob a fair bit, but we’ve domesticated cats mostly by turning the general neoteny knob even more. That doesn’t take as long—as many generations of selection—but it has similarly pervasive and dramatic effects.

    I am not a biologist, though, so don’t entirely trust me on this.

  15. lorn says

    Cats aren’t usually very effective at controlling rodent populations. I suspect that this has to do with mice and rats having evolved around similar predators. Their wariness and high birth rates often overwhelm the ability of any reasonable number of cats to control them.

    In one case involving an agricultural building several years, and dozens of domestic cats, failed to control a rat infestation but two weeks of intensive trapping and baiting pretty much eliminated the problem. Once knock-down was achieved the rats were kept under control with a half dozen regularly renewed bait stations.

    Also the rodent versus cat battle isn’t a head-to-head conflict because cats are very indiscriminate hunters. Birds, bats, snakes, large insects, and pretty much anything smaller than them is fair game to hunt/play with and if they tire of difficult prey, like rats, they are perfectly happy hunting easier prey. But they are also lazy, and get lazier as they age. A young cat in their prime may actively pursue active game like mice and rats but I’ve seen mice actually run across lounging older cats.

    Allowed outside domestic cats are subsidized predators that cripple ecosystems and eliminate native species.

  16. F says

    Your fluffy house kitty may be a Killer Kat when you’re not around

    No matter how I try, I just can’t credit this. I’m so surprised!

  17. Ben P says

    Mentally, dogs are somewhat juvenile versions of wolves, but you’re mostly just taking advantage of wolf instincts when you domesticate them. (E.g., submission to the pack Alpha, etc.)

    Cat’s generally aren’t like that. You wouldn’t want an adult wild cat as pet, because they’re mostly asocial hunters. (Lion prides being an exception, I think.) Lone hunting animals just don’t have the right instincts to hang out with people and be pets.

    I’d guess that also draws interesting parallels to people that have wolves or wolfdogs as pets.

    I can at least anecdotally corroborate the wild cat experience. There’s a large cat preserve/rescue program near here and that’s one of the things I’ve heard. Wild cats are for the most part simply not interested in interacting with humans. They either don’t care, or worse they view humans as a threat or as prey.

    Wolves or wolf-hybrids have more innate social behavior. Wolf behavior is distinctly different from dog behavior, but even wild wolves will, under the right circumstances, interact with humans as they would interact with other wolves.

    However, generations of breeding the friendly and submissive dogs into domestic dogs reduced both prey drive and aggression. A wolf or high content wolfdog will have a strong desire to hunt and kill. One that usually can’t be trained out. Domestic dogs have a weaker desire that can be molded and trained into a herding or chasing or retrieving. Likewise, A wolf, even one that is well socialized and “tame” will be more aggressive and likely to challenge the humans in its pack for dominance, which usually results in attacks. Domestic dogs are bred to be submissive and are more likely to be content to be a non-dominant pack member.

  18. sailor1031 says

    Screw that “well-engineered killing machines”! I used to have three cats around here and a samoyed. The only one that ever caught a mouse was the samoyed. Now those guys are hunters.
    We used to point to one of the cats slinking around the house and just say “shoot – that cat won’t hunt”.

  19. machintelligence says

    It might be significant that we domesticated the largest species of wild dog but one of the smallest species of wild cat.
    Of course I sometimes believe that my cat thinks “if you were smaller than me I would eat you.”

  20. Crudely Wrott says

    Cats are predators. Carnivorous and precocious predators. Cuteness is in the eye of the beholder. Cats do not consider themselves cute. What else do you need to know?

    By the way, I does love me some kiddenun nun nuns. Em is good buddies what massages your face when you are trying to fall asleep. Who else will render such devotion? Not even dogs. By the way, I does love me some P Dogs; P for Puppy, Dog for Dog. P Dogs.

    To all potential and present keepers of “pets”: They are what they are and are so in spite of and without regard to your cloying affections and anthropomorphic assumptions. Comes with the territory. Goes both ways. They only expect fairness from you and acceptance as equals.

    Stop trying to mold animals into your own image of yourself. They will return the favor. That makes for a more wholesome and rewarding relationship for both which is mutually extended and mutually accepted. Like a business deal because it is business. Serious business.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    An experienced zoo keeper in Sweden was killed recently by the pack of wolves she had handled for a long time. This was extremely unusual, but it is a useful reminder that wild animals -even when born in captivity- are wild.
    .
    The dingos in Australia are now attributed with killing a human infant in the 1980s.

    Felines: Size matters. A lynx will scratch and bite you if panicked but will not kill you. The same goes for wolverines and other mustelids.
    We are fortunate to be the size we are.

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