Brightly colored neck attire can hamper cats from chasing birds, however researchers warn that non-safety versions can be lethal.
Dr. Michael Calver of Murdoch University, Western Australia, has published several studies on techniques to reduce the toll domestic cats are wreaking on native wildlife. Calver and his PhD student Catherine Hall discovered a website, Birdsbesafe, selling multicolored collars resembling scrunchies that claimed to stop cats catching birds by ruining the cat's camouflage.
While the website claims the collars reduce bird kills by 87%, at that time there was no independent evidence to verify the claim, so Hall went to work. Her results have now been published in Applied Animal Behavior Science.
Hall couldn't back up the 87% claim, but she did find the collars cut down kills by 54% compared to similar periods with no neck attire. This could make a big difference to the hundreds of millions of small animals killed each year. Numerous native species are being pushed to the edge of extinction by cats, and while much of the damage is being done by those that have gone feral, domestic animals are also a big factor.
Hall found that the 114 cats unwillingly enrolled in the program brought home far fewer lizards and frogs when wearing the collars, and that there was also a reduction, albeit smaller, in the number of birds they caught. She observed the cats did not seem to adapt to the collars as some do to bells, and received reports that birds were more likely to avoid the ground when a collar-wearing cat was on the prowl. A study run around the same time in North America found the collars to be even more effective for protecting American birds, but did not investigate reptiles or amphibians.
Credit: Hall et al. Owners rated the red collar the most effective, but the measured reduction was greatest for the rainbow version, particularly for reptiles, so new and more humiliating versions are welcome.
However, Calver stresses that no one should be rummaging around the back of their cupboards for a scrunchy the 90s forgot, as some have suggested after the story broke. “That's really dangerous,” he told IFLS. Birdsbesafe products attach to safety collars with breakaway buckles that prevent the feline from throttling itself if snagged.
“Captures of mammals were not significantly reduced,” the paper reports. Calver attributes this to most small mammals lacking color vision. He acknowledges, “Some marsupials have color vision, but they are mostly nocturnal and the cats probably hunt them at night so it may not do much good.”
Rodents' lack of color vision could prove an advantage, however. Cat owners who want their pets to control rats and mice but stay off the birds can use the scrunchy collars to achieve both effects. In this way, the scrunchy-style collars do much better than previous control mechanisms Calver has tried, including cat bibs that prevent pouncing and alarms that sound when the cat charges its prey. Unlike all the previous methods Calver's team have tested, the scrunchy-collars protected frogs and lizards as well as birds.
The cats spent more time at home now that their hunting was curtailed. A few dropped out of the trial because the owners believed the scrunchies had given them dermatitis, but 96% either showed no signs of distress or quickly got used to wearing the scrunchies, proving the study was done in Perth not New York. Most of the owners planned to continue with the collars after the study finished. However, one cat left the trial because its owner reported the household dogs wouldn't stop barking at it.