Are Cats Really Good at Catching Rats?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cats catching rats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers from Fordham University were studying a colony of more than 100 rats living at a New York City waste recycling center when a group of feral cats moved in
  • They microchipped the cats and used motion-capture cameras to follow the movements of the cats and their effect on the rats, combing through more than 300 videos taken over a period of 79 days
  • Each day, up to three cats prowled near the rat colony — but few actual interactions occurred; they recorded only 20 stalking events, three kill attempts and two actual kills during the study
  • The presence of cats at the recycling center did little to actually shrink the rat population, but it did change the behavior of the rats, making them spend less time out in the open and more time moving to sheltered locations
  • The practice of releasing cats in order to kill rats in urban areas may be counterproductive, as cats may do little to control rats and could be harmful to wildlife

If there’s one thing cats are known for, it’s their propensity for catching rodents. It’s a trait that seems woven into their DNA and is an integral part of the story of how cats came to live with humans.

It’s said that wild cats may have been drawn to early farming communities in the eastern Mediterranean, where grain stockpiles attracted plenty of rodent pests. The farmers likely appreciated the cats' rodent-catching skills and may have started to tame them. It's likely that Vikings and other sailors invited cats onto their ships to help control rodents as well.

In the modern day, cats are still valued as rodent catchers. Some cities even have programs in place to entice feral cats to do just that. In Washington D.C., for instance, Blue Collar Cats traps feral cats, gives them veterinary care, then releases them into city alleyways.1

Business owners and homeowners provide food and outdoor shelter for the felines in the hope that the cats will stick around — and catch problematic rats. Working cat programs also match cats that don’t make suitable house pets with businesses such as feed stores, warehouses, factories and offices.

Working cats are provided shelter indoors, food, water and medical care by its adopters in exchange for providing a needed service, usually eliminating pests from an area. It sounds like a perfect match, but operates on the premise that cats are good at catching rodents. As it turns out, this may be more of an assumption than a reality, as research suggests cats may not be very good at catching rodents like rats after all.

Cats Do Little to Shrink Rat Populations

Researchers from Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, found themselves with a unique opportunity. They were studying a colony of more than 100 rats living at a New York City waste recycling center when a group of feral cats moved in. They microchipped the cats and used motion-capture cameras to follow the movements of the cats and their effect on the rats.

“We wanted to know whether the number of cats present would influence the number of rats observed, and vice versa,” lead researcher, Michael H. Parsons, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at Fordham University, explained in a news release.2 To find out, the researchers combed through more than 300 videos taken over a period of 79 days.

Each day, up to three cats prowled near the rat colony — but few actual interactions occurred. The researchers recorded a total of 20 stalking events, three kill attempts and two actual kills during the study. Each time a rat was killed, it was because a cat discovered the rat’s hiding place. In one over attempt, a cat chased a rat but then lost interest.

So the presence of cats at the recycling center did little to actually shrink the rat population. It did, however, change the behavior of the rats, making them spend less time out in the open and more time moving to sheltered locations.

"Like any prey, rats overestimate the risks of predation. In the presence of cats, they adjust their behavior to make themselves less apparent and spend more time in burrows," Parsons said. “People see fewer rats and assume it’s because the cats have killed them — whereas it’s actually due to the rats changing their behavior.”3

Releasing Cats May Be Risky to Wildlife

The results of the featured study suggest the practice of releasing cats in order to kill rats may be counterproductive, as cats may be harmful to wildlife. It’s estimated that domestic cats kill billions of small mammals and birds every year.4 Outdoor cats are also at risk, themselves, for viral infections, being hit by cars or otherwise injured by humans or other animals. But outdoor cats also impact other animal populations.

In fact, when domestic cats are introduced on islands, they’ve been responsible for multiple wildlife extinctions, and even on the mainland it’s estimated that free-ranging cats in the U.S. kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals annually.5

Most of these deaths are caused by unowned cats, rather than pets, and it’s estimated that cats “are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic [human-caused] mortality for U.S. birds and mammals.”6 Meanwhile, the ability of cats to prey on rats may be overestimated as compared to smaller rodents like mice.

Even for feral cats, rats are large prey, and cats may prefer to target smaller rodents. Rats can also defend themselves, setting up another hurdle for cats. In fact, cats that are well-fed may live peacefully along with rats, which means releasing cats into urban environments to prey on rats may only work if the cats are hungry.

“[T]hose who employ cats as pest-control solutions may intentionally avoid feeding them in order to prompt them to hunt,” the authors of the featured study noted, which then raises welfare concerns for the cats, adding, “More conclusive evidence is necessary before cats can be justified as control instruments for rats.”

Taken together, the data suggest that cats do not make the best choice to keep rat populations under control, as they may not reduce rat numbers, and the risks to wildlife populations may outweigh any benefits to be had. Also up for debate is whether rats deserve to be “controlled,” as they, like cats, are intelligent, inquisitive and can make great pets — though it’s true that they can also spread certain diseases.

As for mice, the story may be different, however, as cats do excel at hunting these small prey. One study found that six cats roaming a 35-acre study plot killed over 4,200 mice in an eight-month period,7 which suggests that, in the battle of cat versus mouse, cats are still king.