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Published: Jan 30, 2013

Though you may treat your cat as though she were just another member of the family, it's important to remember that even domesticated felines can still occasionally tap into their "wild side." Any owner who has opened their back door to let their cat in only to find a dead mouse or bird on their stoop is likely aware of this fact. While it's not necessarily unhealthy for felines to hunt, a new study suggests that the tendency of cats to capture and kill prey could be damaging the environment, according to USA Today.

Cat hunting statistics
According to research published in the journal Nature Communications, the number of birds and small mammals killed by cats every year is much higher than previously thought. After analyzing data from a number of sources, researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that felines are responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year. Cats also kill as many as 20.7 billion mammals annually, including mice, shrews, rabbits and voles. It's not just feral or stray cats who are responsible for these deaths - researchers estimate that about 50 to 80 percent of domesticated outdoor cats are hunters, reports NPR.

Environmental implications
For those who dislike rodents or birds, hunting and killing small animals may not seem like cat behavior problems. However, with about one third of the 800 species of birds in the U.S. marked as endangered, the implications of this issue could be widespread.

"Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic [human-related] mortality for U.S. birds and mammals," Peter Marra of the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute told USA Today. Cats may even be a greater threat to avian wildlife than wind turbines or glass windows.

What can pet owners do
Fortunately, there are ways that conscientious cat owners can help alleviate this problem. Neutering or spaying a cat is a good start, as this can help decrease the number of felines living in the U.S. Currently, there are many cats who wind up in adoption shelters or on the streets because they are unable to find a home.

If you have an outdoor cat, it may be wise to consider moving her indoors, at least for portions of the year. This will not only help cut down on her hunting habits, it can also prevent a number of health issues that are more common among felines that roam the great outdoors. According to the American Humane Society, there are a number of diseases and parasites that cats who spend time outdoors - particularly if they interact with feral cats - are more likely to contract. Feline Infectious Peritonitis is one such illness, as is FeLV.

If you are concerned that your pet has contracted an illness while roaming outdoors, it's essential that you bring her to the vet right away for a thorough checkup.