Can the hunting instinct be ‘edited’ out of domestic cats’ genes? One university professor believes that yes, it can – easily!
Feline behaviour expert Dr John Bradshaw, a veterinarian scientist from Bristol University, announced at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival that editing the hunting gene of cats could turn cats into better pets.
Dr Bradshaw spoke about genetically engineering domestic cats to breed their hunting instinct out of them altogether at last week’s event in Cheltenham. He said that breeding the hunting instinct out was a real possibility now, due to the majority of modern day cat owners preferring not to have to deal with such a “primitive habit” in their cats.
“The distaste we have towards blood and flesh and death – most people don’t like it,” Dr Bradshaw noted. “If people become more offended by cats bringing prey into their home then fewer people will want to have cats. Cats are such fascinating animals so that would be a pity.”
Recent research shared by the RSPCA claims that the Mammal Society estimates up to 275 million animals (birds, mice, etc) are caught each year by the UK’s 10 million or so domestic housecats. 55 million of this 275 million are birds – a substantial 20 per cent.
Despite the RSPB stating that there is ‘no evidence’ that cats are having any overall impact on the UK bird population, Dr Bradshaw recognised the fact that, following such research, making cats the scapegoats for such wildlife issues as declining bird populations was becoming commonplace: “People who don’t like cats are always going to blame them. So to make that go away, we need to do something about it. We need to select cats that don’t hunt.”
The Bristol University academic advised that a domestic cat’s desire and ability to hunt is most likely determined by just 15 or 20 genes so once they were identified, they could easily be changed to make cats less hunt-driven animals.
“Worldwide we need a solution to cats going hunting for wildlife when they don’t need to. I think we are going to have to intervene. They evolved a habit we encouraged [catching mice] for 10,000 years and for the last 20 years we don’t want it.”
Pet owners may have mixed feelings towards cats that have been genetically changed to suit non-hunting preferences but Dr Bradshaw insists that nowadays domestic cats have full nutrition from their owners feeding them so their need to hunt is redundant. However, he did warn that “you can turn down their hunting by feeding them good food but you can’t turn it off. It’s too few generations since they were valued for hunting for it to disappear. The question is how we intervene – maybe by breeding? I think we should. I think that as the planet gets more crowded, this is not an animal that can coexist with wildlife. There’s precious little enough wildlife as there is – it can’t share with the cat. That’s not sustainable long term.”
For bird lovers not wanting to wait and see if ‘editing’ the hunting instinct out of cats will progress, other methods of discouraging cats from entering your garden and sneaking up on birds include installing cat deterent devices that emit a high-pitched sound to stop cats in theuir tracks or the simple solution of fitting a bell onto the cat’s collar to alert any potential prey to its movement.