Cats Prey on More Than 2,000 Different Species

A new study sheds light on just how many creatures domestic cats will eat—including hundreds that are threatened or endangered

Grey cat couching in grass
Cats are not picky and will eat nearly anything they can catch. Pixabay

Ask any cat owner about their feline friend’s diet, and they’ll likely regale you with tales of their kitty nabbing a spider off the wall or crunching on a cricket.

Now, for the first time, scientists have put together a comprehensive record of all the different creatures domestic cats will eat—and the list is long. Cats have been documented preying on more than 2,000 species, according to a new paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists have long known that free-ranging cats—those that spend unsupervised time outdoors—can affect biodiversity by hunting and eating insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. These “invasive carnivores” are not picky eaters and will consume just about anything and everything they can catch, the researchers write in the paper.

But the team wanted to get a better understanding of the threat cats present, especially to threatened or endangered species.

“Cats are a problem that we can solve,” says study lead author Christopher Lepczyk, an ecologist at Auburn University, to Scientific American’s Jack Tamisiea.

Researchers sifted through hundreds of previous studies, books and reports to put together a database of every animal cats have been recorded eating, as well as the location.

In the end, their list featured 2,084 species, which includes 981 birds, 463 reptiles, 431 mammals, 119 insects and 57 amphibians, plus 33 additional species from other groups. Some of the creatures that made the list—including humans—are too large for cats to hunt but reflect their scavenging tendencies.

The list is far from complete, scientists caution, because in many cases of predation, especially with insects and other invertebrates, the species the cat was munching on could not be identified.

“We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg,” Lepczyk tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page.

Additionally, many of the creatures that made the list are in trouble: 347 of the species are near threatened, threatened or already extinct in the wild.

Of course, cats aren’t solely responsible for those declines, and the study did not examine the role cat predation played in those animals’ population challenges. However, in some instances, such as with endangered green sea turtles, cats were spotted munching on juveniles, which means they could be affecting the animals’ numbers, per New Scientist.

So, what can be done to help curb free-ranging cats’ appetites and protect wildlife? The paper didn’t explore that question specifically, but past proposed solutions have included keeping pets indoors, spaying and neutering, feeding pet cats more meat-centric diets and genetically modifying domestic and feral cats to prevent them from reproducing, to name a few.

Though the findings are useful, some scientists say they distract from a much larger threat to biodiversity: humans.

“The focus on cats is a bit of a scapegoat for a much bigger problem about our ecological landscape,” says Mikel Delgado, an independent researcher and certified cat behavior consultant who was not involved in the paper, to Wired’s Celia Ford.

If humans won’t change their own behavior to protect biodiversity, why should we expect cats to change? “I’m not sure why we’d be motivated to do anything to a species that we have a very close relationship with,” Delgado adds to Wired.

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