SYDNEY: Domestic cats kill an estimated 100 million native Australian animals each year. Now, a study shows that a brightly-coloured ‘bib’ attached to a cat’s collar can reduce hunting effectiveness by 72 per cent.
Cats are believed to have pushed some Australian species extinct on islands and contributed to the dissapearance of ground-living birds and marsupials on the mainland too.
Domestic cats alone have been estimated to catch an average of 32 animals a year and feed on 347 different birds, mammals and reptiles.
Because of this, pet cats have a poor image in Australia and ownership is in decline, said ecologist Mike Calver at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.
In 2005 Calver was searching the internet for discussion groups on responsible cat ownership, when he chanced across a site advertising a brightly-coloured fabric ‘CatBib’ that its inventors claimed significantly reduced predation.
Intrigued to discover what impact the product could have on declining native wildlife, Calver asked the manufacturer for some bibs and set up a trial with Perth cat owners. His study is set for publication in an upcoming edition of the journal Biological Conservation.
Over six weeks his team monitored the behaviour of 56 cats. Those chosen were known to kill an average of one or more animals every three weeks – and most lived near native bushland. During the trial each cat spent three weeks with a bib and three without. Dead prey bought home by cats was collected and identified and instances where prey was rescued and released were recorded.
Calver found that the bibs stopped 81 per cent of cats in the trials from catching birds, 33 per cent from catching reptiles and frogs and 45 percent from catching mammals.
Overall he found a 72 per cent reduction in the number of birds killed by cats wearing the bib. This compares favourably with the 34 per cent reduction found for cats wearing bells alone in a 2005 U.K. study.
“It’s a very, very good solution for cat owners who are concerned about the hunting behaviour of their cats,” said Calver. “Alone or in combination with a bell, these deterrent devices may lead to reductions of [an average of] 50 per cent in the numbers of prey taken by pet cats and may stop some from hunting altogether,” he said.
Made from tough, lightweight neoprene, the bibs are attached to collars with velcro. According to Calver, they are safe for cats when fitted to a safety collar and used outside – and the majority grew completely accustomed to wearing them within a few days.
According to Cat Goods Inc., the U.S. manufacturer of the bibs, they work by interfering with a cat’s hunting skills and act as a barrier between predator and prey.
But Calver and his team also studied videos of the cats whilst they were wearing the bibs and found that they were able to climb, jump and pounce as usual. “Their movement was uninhibited,” he said. “The bib simply helps to alert wildlife to an approaching predator and works as a visual warning.”
The bibs could be a viable way to help protect our natural wildlife said Jane Speechley with the animal welfare group RSPCA in Canberra. “If the product can reduce the impact of cats on native wildlife without adversely affecting the cat, we’d certainly see that as a good thing.”
However, “we’d still support secure outdoor cat enclosure as an ideal alternative,” as that also helps prevent risks to cats posed by allowing them to roam, she said.
CatBibs are available for purchase over the Internet from the U.S. but have not yet been marketed in Australia.