Domestic cats hunt wildlife less if owners can do these two things, the research suggests.

Hunting by cats is a conservation and welfare concern, but methods to reduce this can be controversial and often rely on restricting cat behaviour in ways many owners find unacceptable.

A study by the University of Exeter has found that introducing a premium commercial food where proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36%.

It also found that five to 10 minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.

Professor Robbie McDonald, of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, said: “Previous research in this area has focussed on inhibiting cats’ ability to hunt, either by keeping them indoors or fitting them with collars, devices and deterrents.”

He added: “While keeping cats indoors is the only sure-fire way to prevent hunting, some owners are worried about the welfare implications of restricting their cat’s outdoor access.

“Our study shows that – using entirely non-invasive, non-restrictive methods – owners can change what the cats themselves want to do.

“By playing with cats and changing their diets, owners can reduce their impact on wildlife without restricting their freedom.”

In the study, play involved owners simulating hunting by moving a feather toy on a string and wand so cats could stalk, chase and pounce.

Owners also gave cats a toy mouse to play with after each “hunt”, mimicking a real kill.

The researchers say it is not clear what elements of the meaty food led to the reduction in hunting.

Martina Cecchetti, the PhD student who conducted the experiments, said: “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that despite forming a ‘complete diet’ these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients – prompting them to hunt.”

She added: “However, meat production raises clear climate and environmental issues, so one of our next steps is to find out whether specific micronutrients could be added to cat foods to reduce hunting.”

The study was based on a 12-week trial of 355 cats in 219 households in south-west England.

It also examined the effect of existing devices used to limit hunting by cats.

Colourful “Birdsbesafe” collar covers reduced numbers of birds captured and brought home by 42%, but had no effect on hunting of mammals.

According to the study published in Current Biology, cat bells had no discernible overall effect.

However, the researchers say the impact on individual cats varied widely, suggesting some cats learn to hunt successfully despite wearing a bell.

Dr Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy at iCatCare, which is part of the advisory group for this research project, said: “We are really encouraged by the findings of this study.

“While many cat owners are wildlife lovers and find the killing and injuring of wild animals by their cats upsetting, many owners also feel that keeping their cats indoors or restricting their outdoor access would impact negatively on their cats’ quality of life.”

Dr Adam Grogan, head of wildlife at the RSPCA, welcomed the results of the study, saying it provides alternatives for cat owners that are simple, effective and easy to adopt.