Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
How can I train my 9-month-old kitten not to catch or kill birds? He’s killed four birds. The last time I caught him I had to grab him by the hair to make him let go of the bird. How can I stop this?
Siouxsie: Well, Jennie, the unfortunate truth is that you’d have about as much luck training your cat not to catch birds as you’d have if you tried to train your cat not to breathe. Hunting is an instinct hard-wired into a cat’s brain. Because we’re obligate carnivores (we have to eat meat to stay healthy) and our wild ancestors survived by catching and killing prey, all of us have a drive to hunt whenever we see a mouse or a bird or any other yummy-looking small critter.
Thomas: But the good news is, there are some things you can do to keep birds safer.
Dahlia: By far the most effective way to prevent your cat from hunting birds is to keep him indoors.
Siouxsie: We’ve certainly enjoyed an indoor-outdoor life, but now we’re indoor-only cats and we’re quite content with that.
Thomas: And the vet says we don’t have to have feline leukemia shots as long as we’re indoor-only cats. Since all three of us hate shots, we’re happy about that! I mean, we still have to get rabies shots and distemper shots, but I guess that’s OK …
Dahlia: Indoor cats live a lot longer than outdoor cats. If your cat lives indoors, he won’t be attacked or eaten by predators; he won’t be exposed to parasites like worms or fleas, or potentially fatal diseases like feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus; and he certainly won’t get hit by a car or stolen by unscrupulous people who sell cats to animal research laboratories.
Siouxsie: Some people say it’s not natural to keep cats indoors. But they need to remember that cats are bred to be companion animals, not wild hunters. We adapt very well to indoor environments, and we don’t get bored or depressed — especially when you play with us!
Thomas: A kitty friend can also help keep your cat entertained. You may wish to consider adopting another cat, particularly if you decide to transition him to an indoor-only lifestyle.
Dahlia: The American Bird Conservancy has a web page dedicated to its Cats Indoors! campaign, which includes information on how to transition your outdoor cat to a happy indoor cat, as well as educational materials and resources for starting a Cats Indoors! campaign in your area.
Siouxsie: One of the reasons Mama keeps us indoors is because she hates seeing birds get eaten.
Thomas: Also, we live near a bird sanctuary, and Mama says she doesn’t want to do anything to put those birds in danger.
Dahlia: If for some reason you can’t keep your cat indoors only, Jennie, there are a few things you can do to help keep birds safer.
Siouxsie: One thing people do is put a bell on their cat’s collar. A lot of collars actually come with bells now. This supposedly helps warn birds and other prey animals that the cat is coming.
Thomas: But collar bells really aren’t that effective once we learn how to sneak quietly even with that hideous, jingly annoyance! I didn’t have any trouble catching bunnies and rats after Mama put a bell on me.
Dahlia: If you’re feeding birds in your yard, you’ll want to make sure you have a cat-proof bird feeder. If you mount your feeder on a steel pole such as this one (or a home-made version thereof), you’ll keep the cats away from birds that use it. As an extra bonus, pole feeders usually do pretty well at foiling squirrels, too.
Siouxsie: Bird experts say a pole feeder should be at least 6 or 7 feet (2 meters) high in order to keep cats at bay.
Thomas: You can also hang bird feeders at the ends of tree branches. The thin branches will sway under the cat’s weight and alert the birds to an approaching hunter.
Dahlia: If you have ground-feeding birds (or birds that take advantage of seed spilled out of a feeder), bird watchers recommend sprinkling a circle of cheap black pepper around the feeding area. Pepper makes cats sneeze, but it doesn’t bother birds.
Siouxsie: Ultimately, Jennie, the easiest solution to bird hunting is keeping your cat indoors. But we hope these tricks can keep your birds safe from other neighborhood cats, too.