Cats and garden birds go together like a match made in Hell. But if your cat keeps catching birds, how do you stop it? Can you stop it?
How do I stop my cat killing birds? You must prevent its instincts of hunting for pleasure, hunting for sport, and of bringing you ‘gifts’ of small dead animals. To achieve this, consider keeping your cat indoors, or fitting it with a special collar to warn birds of its presence. Some collars emit a noise that the birds can hear. Others are big, bright and colorful, so that birds can see your cat coming. The only perfect way of keeping birds safe from outdoor cats is to keep your cat indoors permanently, but if your cat is used to going outside, this may cause more problems than it solves.
The guide below first explores why do cats chase birds (and there’s more to learn than just the obvious). Knowing why cats enjoy hunting so much will help understand which of the potential fixes explored below will work (like cat collars to prevent killing birds), and which won’t. This guide finishes with a section on the dangers of certain collars, which are expecially relevant if you plan on fitting some kind of cat collar bird alarm.
How Do I Get My Cat to Stop Chasing Birds?
There are three core ways to stop your cat chasing birds. One is to physically remove your cat from the situation by keeping it away from the birds. Another is to dissuade your cat from chasing birds by training it (much easier said than done). The final option, the one that’s perhaps most successful, is to make your cat more obvious to the birds so that it can’t catch them.
You’re far from alone as a cat owner with this problem. According to the journal Nature Communications, it’s estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually. They even state that these cats ‘have contributed to multiple wildlife extinctions on islands’. The cats that cause most of this environmental damage are feral or stray cats, but our outdoor cats play a significant role too.
So how do you get them to stop?
First, we have to understand why cats hunt at all, despite getting more than enough food from their owners.
Why Is My Cat Catching So Many Birds?
House cats have the same instincts as wild cats, and perhaps the deepest-ingrained instinct is for your cat to hunt. They have evolved in both body and mind to be the perfect tiny killers:
- They have long, sharp teeth relative to their size. While a cat’s bite may not hurt us, it’s more than big enough to kill a bird or a mouse.
- They have well-developed approach behaviors to conceal themselves before they attack.
- They have cushioned paws, with sharp, retractable claws. The cushioned pads help the cat stay quiet as it approaches prey. The retractable claws mean that the prey won’t hear any ‘click, clack’ noises on approach.
- They teach their young to hunt. Kittens are encouraged to play fight and chase, behaviors essential for hunting.
This might seem odd, since cats have largely been domesticated. Other pets have lost their instincts, or at least seen them diminish over the years. The reason cats still hunt is that we haven’t tried to breed the instinct of hunting out of them! Cats were domesticated and bred to hunt mice and rats, to keep our homes, our streets and our towns clean.
Not all cats are mousers these days—in fact precious few are kept for the purpose—but if anything, they were bred based on how good they were at hunting, not how little they exhibited the behavior. Perhaps in 500 years’ time, cats will have been continually bred for how little they hunt rather than how much. If that’s what the future holds, then the ‘cats of tomorrow’ will be far less likely to hunt. But we’re stuck with the cats of today and all of the instincts they still carry from the wild.
Why Do Cats Bring Back Dead Birds?
Besides that, cats can hunt because they feel they need to provide for you. Housecats frequently present their owners with ‘gifts’ of dead birds or mice.
Like everything in a kitten’s life, this starts with the mother. In the earliest stages of a kitten’s life they’re fed with their mothers’ milk. But as they get older they transition onto solid food. First, the mother will bring back dead prey for the kitten to chow down on. But as the kittens get bigger and stronger, the mother will start bringing back partially-killed prey instead. The prey will still be alive, but will be severely injured and close to death. It’s then up to the kitten or kittens to finish the job. If they show that they’re capable, they can then join their mother in an actual hunt.
It’s this middle stage that’s relevant here. Your cat doesn’t fully understand the relationship it has with you. At times you’re a caregiver, at times you’re an equal, and at times that cat feels that it takes care of you. As part of this unusual dynamic, sometimes the cat feels that it has to bring you dead prey for you to eat, or half-alive prey for you to finish off. It’s a kind gesture on your cat’s part.
Can My Cat Get Sick from Killing a Bird?
A quick point that’s worth considering: letting your cat hunt birds can make it sick. Birds can harbor bacteria, particularly Salmonella, that your cat can catch. The sicker the bird, the easier it is for your cat to catch, too, increasing the chance of your cat getting more than a meal from its prey. It’s for this reason that salmonellosis, i.e. a salmonella infection, is also known as ‘songbird fever’ in cats.
How to Protect Birds from Cats
Preventing your cat’s bird-killing behavior is difficult. You have to combat each of the points above: that it’s the cat’s hunting instinct to do so, and that cats enjoy bringing gifts to their owners.
Keep Your Cat Indoors
There is no more effective way to stop your cat from hunting than to keep it indoors. By keeping it indoors, you entirely preclude the possibility of it hunting for anything, except perhaps mice that make their way inside.
If your cat enjoys being indoors most of the time, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if your cat loves the outdoors, and spends the days or nights outside, then this will be a difficult adjustment. You may find that your cat begins exhibiting new behaviors that are just as inconvenient or disgusting (to the owner) as its hunting: going to the toilet in the wrong places, begging you for attention, fighting more with your other pets or with you, or simply sitting near the window or the door and watching the outside.
You could argue that it’s cruel to keep an outdoor cat indoors in a way that it isn’t cruel to train a cat to enjoy living indoors from birth. You could definitely say that it causes problems as well as solves them. So, give it a go, but it may not work.
Get Rid of Your Bird Table or Bird Feeder
You may have either a bird table or a bird feeder in your yard. They’re good for the birds in one sense, since they give them a place to congregate and find food. But if you also have a cat, then what feeders and tables do is give your cat the perfect place to hunt.
You could try moving the feeder or table somewhere less easy for your cat to reach. But cats are great climbers, and can easily climb trees, so moving the feeder higher up won’t do much. And a bird table will be easily accessible no matter where you put it in your yard.
So: if your cat is an avid hunter, and you can’t keep it indoors, consider getting rid of your bird feeder/table. Even if you put one of the collars described below on your cat, it will still catch some birds, since there will still be so many in your yard.
Feed Your Cat More
Cats may hunt because they’re hungry. Hunting is a natural behavior, and is of course related to hunger; wild cats are more likely to hunt when they haven’t eaten for a week than within half an hour of a meal.
As such, try having food always available for your cat. Ensure that the food is one your cat enjoys eating, not one that it feels it has to eat.
That being said, owners report that not all cats hunt for the same reasons. Some seem to hunt for sport, i.e. for no reason other than the fun they have chasing, catching and killing prey. These cats will play with the birds or mice that they catch, not eating them, but knocking them from one paw to the other. If these cats do eat some of their prey, they’ll only eat a tiny bit, and leave the rest for you to clean up.
If your cat is one of these cats, then the reason it’s hunting is because its instinct to do so is triggered for reasons other than hunger. If anything, if you fed it less, it would at least eat the prey that it catches. All of this means that feeding your cat more may not stop it from hunting, but it’s a good place to start.
Train Your Kitten From a Young Age
The ship may very much have sailed on this point; it’s likely that you’re worried about your adult cat catching birds. You can’t go back in time and teach it not to hunt them, and it would be highly ineffective to start trying now. Older cats don’t learn things as easily. But it’s still a point worth learning.
Cats learn which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t at a young age. When they’re kittens, cats learn how to groom themselves based on how their mothers groom them. They learn how to play with other cats by playing with their brothers and sisters; they learn how to fight, too. As pets, they learn to go to the toilet in a litter box, how to interact with humans, and whether humans are kind or cruel.
The reason kittens can learn so much while adult cats can’t is that their brains are literally forming as they grow. These patterns of growth determine what kind of cat the kitten will grow up to be. This means that your cat’s kittenhood is the perfect time for you to dissuade it from hunting birds, mice or other animals. You can do so by spraying your kitten with water any time it displays hunting behaviors. It should come to associate this negative sensation with the desire to, or act of, hunting.
You can try doing this with an adult cat, but it won’t be as successful. And even with kittens, remember that this is an instinct, not just a behavior, so you may not be able to get rid of it completely.
Sonic Cat Collar for Killing Birds
Another more modern option is the electronic sonic cat collar. This is like a collar fitted with a bell, except the ‘bell’ is a tiny electronic warning system that turns on when the cat leaps.
The best known brand is the Liberator, a collar made by Hi-Craft, which is available online. When the collar bleeps, it gives off a loud beeping sound, and also has a flashing light that should help catch a bird’s attention. Studies seem to indicate that these collars work a little more consistently than bell collars. The only problem is that they can run out of battery.
Buy a BirdsBeSafe Collar
BirdsBeSafe collars are a novel idea. Rather than helping birds hear your cat coming, they help birds see your cat coming. For want of a better way of putting it, BBS collars make your cat look like a clown! They’re colorful ruffs/bibs that go around your cats neck, just like a regular collar, except wider. They’re made of soft fabric printed in very bright, noticeable colors. The idea is that a bird can pick out these colors easily, and so should see your cat coming, even if it’s in hunting-mode.
The effectiveness of BBS collars has been studied in scientific journals, too. According to a paper published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science:
We evaluated the effectiveness of three patterned designs (simple descriptions being rainbow, red and yellow) of the anti-predation collar cover, the Birdsbesafe® (BBS), in reducing prey captures by 114 pet cats over 2 years in a suburban Australian context. … In the first year of the study, which focused on the effectiveness of different BBS colours, captures of prey with good colour vision were reduced by 54% when cats were wearing a BBS of any colour, with the rainbow and red BBS more effective than the yellow when birds were prey. Captures of mammals were not reduced significantly. The second year assessed the rainbow BBS alone, and those data combined with rainbow data in the first year found a significant reduction of 47% in capture of prey with good colour vision.
In another journal, the reduction in capture rate was an impressive 87% (which is the number touted on the BBS site). However, the first study states that there was ‘no evidence that cats maintained a lower predation rate once the BBS was removed.’ This means that the collar doesn’t train the cat to stop hunting, unfortunately.
Basic Cat Collars to Prevent Killing Birds
If you can’t afford a BirdsBeSafe collar, or if they aren’t available in your area, don’t worry. There are more basic measures you can take which are still effective enough. One of these is to place a small bell on your cat’s collar.
The idea is the same as a sonic collar: the birds will hear your cat coming, so won’t be as easily caught. As your cat runs at the birds, the bell around its neck will jingle them and frighten them away. Like the BirdsBeSafe collar, this won’t be entirely effective, since cats can sneak quite well. But it at least gives the birds a fighting chance of escape.
There are two downsides in fitting a collar with a bell. One is that you will hear the bell as your cat goes about its day. This could be distracting or annoying, especially if you’re home all day. You may end up wanting to remove it, and then your cat will be back to catching birds. BirdsBeSafe collars don’t cause the same problem. The second though—the more important—is that regular cat collars can be dangerous for cats to wear.
The Dangers of Cat Collars
All that being said, there are dangers with collars that you should be aware of.
One is if the collar cannot release. Your cat can get caught on a branch, on furniture or on a fence and not get free. It could severely hurt itself or even choke itself.
Another danger, paradoxically, is if the collar is elastic. Elastic collars can be awkward for cats, too. If the collar is loose-fitting, the cat can get its paws stuck between its collar and its neck. Or, the collar can catch and hang on a branch. The problem is that the elastic in the collar doesn’t snap or release when pulled upon; it just stretches.
It’s true that these risks are smaller than most people think. According to the paper linked above, other issues related to letting your cat outside such as traffic are much more common. But they do remain something to be aware of.