British Columbia

Biologist wants to tame cats' killer instinct with flashy collars

A B.C. professor is asking pet owners to put colourful collars on their cats and monitor their comings and goings to protect birds from ending up as prey.

UNBC professor says cats can suppress the sound of warning bells on their collars

Ken Otter says birds have good colour vision and a high-visibility collar could help them avoid predatory house cats. (Ken Otter)

A B.C. university professor is trying to save bird populations by recruiting house cats to wear special collars designed to make hunting more difficult.

Ken Otter is asking pet owners in the Prince George area to keep a log of their cats comings and goings and report any prey they bring home.

"It's a sensitive issue because there's pros and cons around whether cats can be free roaming."

The University of Northern B.C. biologist says domestic cats kill between 100 million and 350 million birds in Canada every year.  

The statistic, estimated using the number of owned cats in Canada and the average prey they kill, represents between 2.5 and 7 per cent of the estimated bird population in Southern Canada, where cats are concentrated.

As well as logging their cat's prey, Otter's project with the City of Prince George and the Canadian Wildlife Service requires owners to put a high-visibility collar made of bright colours on their cats every other week and see whether they catch less prey.

"Birds have very good colour vision," said Otter. "They're much more attuned to those colours than are other potential prey items like rodents, which are actually red-green colourblind for the most part."

Ken Otter says one of the consequences of restricting cats' movements can be an increase in mouse and rodent population. (Ken Otter)

He says bells aren't effective at putting a stop to hunting because cats can learn to suppress their sound.

According to Otter, using the high-visibility collar should help limit feline hunting of birds without restricting their ability to catch house mice and rats, which are less of a wildlife concern.

"One of the reasons that cats were essentially domesticated has been around maintaining rodent populations," said Otter.

A survey linked to the project is also asking people about their opinions on overall cat biology and whether or not cats should be more closely monitored.

The research — funded by UNBC, the SPCA, veterinarians, and the Canadian Wildlife Service — may also help Prince George determine how it regulates cats.

"I would say it's a good idea to try and just from a responsible pet ownership to keep a handle on where your pets are at any given time."

The pilot project will run over the course of the summer and could be extended, depending on the results. Anyone living in Prince George, B.C., who's interested in participating can contact catstudy@unbc.ca.

Listen to Ken Otter explain how high-visibility collars work on cats on Radio West:

With files from Betsy Trumpener and Radio West

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