Iams doesn't make a "bug" flavor
August 13, 2006 9:52 PM   Subscribe

One of our cats seems to have developed a taste for--gack!--butterflies. He is stalking them, catching them, and eating them whole at an approximate rate of one butterfly every two days...

Our backyard attracts a large number of butterflies thanks to its location (low foothills of the San Fernando Valley, Southern California) and its butterfly-magnet flowers (echinacea, agastache, hyssop, rudbeckia daisies, basil, etc.), which were planted before we learned of our dear kitty's unfortunate predilection.

Oddly enough, his unlucky favorites seem to be almost exclusively the orange-and-black type of butterfly, although the yard attracts everything from yellow-and-black swallowtails to drab brownish ones to white moths. Judging by this page of photos of local butterflies, it looks like he's eating Painted Lady's, West Coast Lady's, and (sob!) Monarch's. He's been doing this for the past two months that we know of, perhaps longer; we only learned of the issue when he started bringing bits of them into the house...

We can't just keep him inside the house all day, because my husband and his writing partner work out of the house, and the writing partner has cat allergies; letting the kitties roam our solidly-fenced-in back yard during daylight hours makes everyone, humans and cats, much happier. And it would be unfair to his sister to deny her outdoor privleges just because of her brother's Lepidopteracide.

Other data points that may be relevant... The cats have unlimited access to dry food and water, and are each fed half a can of wet food at night, so I don't think he's hungry or missing out on any nutrients that he's trying to supplement. He's part American Shorthair and part Bengal, a recently domesticated breed created by crossing housecats with the smallish Asian Leopard Cat, so he may have inherited some of his ancestors' odd wild traits. He hunts and devours other bugs too, everything from cockroaches to mosquitoes to houseflies--which is quite useful, actually. But I wish he'd let the butterflies alone.

So, questions:

- How can we stop his reign of terror?

- Of all the butterfly species to favor, aren't the orange-and-black ones supposed to be toxic and/or foul-tasting to predators? Is my cat going to poison himself if he keeps doing this? Should I bring him to the vet?

- Should I get rid of all the butterfly magnet flowers in my yard?
posted by Asparagirl to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think if it makes him happy, let him do it. Then again, I am a proponent of survival of the fittest.
posted by trevyn at 10:00 PM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: If you have time and patience, you could try training him away from eating them by scaring him away from them. Get something like an empty soda can with a handful of gravel in it, taped closed. Watch the cat; stay out of sight, and as far away as you can comfortably toss. When cat springs for butterful, you throw the can into his personal space; not to hit him, but to make him realize butterfly=nasty rattling objects from nowhere! Try not to associate yourself with the action ie don't yell at him, and if he looks at you, pretend you're looking away, otherwise he'll eventually realize butterflies are edible only if Mom's not around.

Otherwise, I'd say it's not a big deal. Butterflies and other wildlife are used to having predators in their environment; they have strategies to compensate, like laying hundreds of eggs. Your cat is now part of that environment (and may have cut down the bird population as well, hence, fewer competitors for butterfly-eating), and a butterfly every couple days is nothing compared to the damage a spray pesticide or something would do. The fact that you even have butterflies (they're in decline almost everywhere) means that you're doing well by them, with your butterfly magnet flowers.

I don't know about the toxicity; I'd check with your vet, just a call and see what he/she says.
posted by Rubber Soul at 10:06 PM on August 13, 2006

Very few butterflies survive to die a "natural" death, and the ones puss is munching may well have already spawned. A quick death in a cat's mouth seems karmically better than a splat on the windshield, anyway, so why not let this be?
posted by Scram at 10:09 PM on August 13, 2006

Yeah, I also don't see this being a big problem. Cats eat bugs, birds, mice, &c. Wild animals eat those things too. It's okay.
posted by aubilenon at 10:17 PM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: How can we stop his reign of terror?

I think it's great you're concerned and empathize, but aside from Rubber Soul's loud noise solution (which I like a lot and think is worth trying), I'm not sure there's much you can do. Years ago I watched one of my country cats discover a nest of cardinals. I tried scaring him away, which worked for a half hour with him glaring at me, but knew the delicious little birdies would be toast as soon as I left for work. So eventually I just sat and watched as he climbed the tree, grabbed one, climbed down, ate it up, then climbed the tree again for the next one, then the next one, while the parent birds cheeped like mad. It was a horrible, fascinating lesson in having a predator for a friend.

Try the loud noise thing for as long as you can, though. You'll at least feel like you tried.
posted by mediareport at 10:30 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would disagree with the can of rocks solution for several reasons:

- First and foremost you could accidentally hit the cat.
- Secondly, you're just teaching the cat to not hunt butterflies when you're around
- Third, there's nothing unnatural or unhealthy about this.

Butterflies can be viewed as cute, I won't argue with that... but there's really nothing "wrong" with what your kitty is doing... part of the benefit of going outside is that kitty gets to use his natural hunting instincts!

I say leave your little hunter be.. it's better than bringing home birds and mice, which many cats do and is also natural... they're born predators...
posted by twiggy at 10:37 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Butterflies are insects, just like the other ones your cat eats that you find "quite useful". Butterflies are simply prettier...just try to think of them as pests and let your cat be a cat. As for toxicity, your cat would probably have eaten a butterfly that didn't agree with him, thrown it up, and learned his lesson by now - I wouldn't sweat it.
posted by meerkatty at 10:45 PM on August 13, 2006

What everyone said. As long as the vet doesn't see a problem, let kitty have his fun and enjoy exhibiting his natural instincts.
posted by davidmsc at 10:53 PM on August 13, 2006

Bugs are full of protein. My cats love a nice crunchy moth or cricket. If they tasted bad, your cat wouldn't eat them.
posted by essexjan at 11:54 PM on August 13, 2006

I truly understand how you feel. My late puss emptied our tiny yard of all life, to the point where nary a lizard or butterfly or hummingbird could enter our little garden. It seems your kitty is fully in touch with his predatory nature, and, outside of hanging around your yard with a bullhorn/hose waiting for his next attack, it's probably unlikely that you can dissuade him from doing the hunting that comes so naturally to him. Keep him indoors, or just let him be, butterflies be damned. He's probably more interested in the hunt than the taste, at any rate.
posted by maryh at 12:26 AM on August 14, 2006

Best answer: I'm not sure about the others but don't worry about the Monarchs being harmful. My cats have been eating them for years, one or two a day when they're in season (the butterflies that is). Monarchs are sucessful too, not endangered in any way shape or form.

I doubt it's a wildcat thing either, Mine are normal suburban moggies and eat butterflies, bugs, lizards, mice, anything that moves quickly (but no too quickly). It's just a cat in general thing. It's not hunger either. The hunting instinct is very distinct from the eating instinct in cats, they do it because they like it.
posted by shelleycat at 1:10 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just think of it as free cat food. My dog loves flies and moths.
posted by twistedonion at 1:29 AM on August 14, 2006

It's a cat. This is what cats do. What do you expect?
posted by salmacis at 2:06 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Let the cat hunt the butterflies. It's no big deal.
posted by bim at 3:53 AM on August 14, 2006

Best answer: Monarchs live on milkweed as larvae. My understanding (and it's been a very long time since I was actively studying this) is that the toxicity is such that it makes the predator puke nearly right away. This is a highly effective deterrent because the consequential negative reinforcement happens in close association with the action. In essence the first monarch ends up "taking one for the team". The toxins are rarely fatal.

It was also my understanding that not all monarchs end up toxic and that it depends on their food plant. My childhood reference claims that they can eat Dogbane, which is similar in many ways to milkweed, but it is not toxic. This site, however, claims that monarch larvae can't survive on Dogbane. And just to muddy the waters even more, I read an article about 10 years ago that described the behavior of birds eating monarchs at their overwintering site. They had learned to sample them first and avoid the toxic ones (but effectively killing each one).

It is also possible that the cat is getting Great Spangled Fritillary or Viceroy. The former is similar is size and general color, the latter is an out and out mimic.

Nonetheless, butterflies get eaten. Butterflies die. Feel bad about it? Raise some yourself next year from eggs or young larvae so that a greater percentage of lepidoptera reach adulthood without being affected by parasites, which take out far more than your cat can.
posted by plinth at 5:01 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

First of all, I think the majority of these answers are riding a derailed train. It isn't that the Asker is worried about "her cat eating butterflies," it is that her beautiful and aesthetically pleasing garden that attracts, and is enhanced by, butterflies has turned into a killing spree for Kitty.

My advice is that she should use the normal cat deterrent methods of dissuasion. Cats aren't supposed to jump on counters, cats aren't supposed to tear up furniture, as well as many other things cats aren't supposed to do. Unfortunately, they do them.

Kitties are bad. Not once in my life have I owned a kitty and thought to myself, "oh, that is a very well-mannered kitty." Never. It is always, "oh the trash is all over the kitchen," or, "why are there loud banging noises that sound like something is breaking at 2 am."

So, if you are worried about the cat eating butterflies while you are not in the yard, it's not a big deal. Guess what? The cats are tearing up your furniture and strutting around on your countertops while you sleep, so... there. Just squirt the classic Disney villain with a hose a few times until s/he realizes it's not ok to hunt while you're (possibly?) around, and I think you're all set.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 5:41 AM on August 14, 2006

[pile-on]If you let your cat outside, you have to expect this kind of thing happening. My wife's childhood cat used to bring her dead mice and birds and place them on her pillow - sort of like offerings.[/pile-on]

I do have an actual suggestion, though. They make little bells to put on kitty collars, so they can't hunt silently. Its specifically to prevent easy bird kills, but I'd imagine it would work with insects, too. It will drive your cat crazy for awhile, but she'll get used to it.
posted by rsanheim at 7:58 AM on August 14, 2006

First of all, I think the majority of these answers are riding a derailed train. It isn't that the Asker is worried about "her cat eating butterflies," it is that her beautiful and aesthetically pleasing garden that attracts, and is enhanced by, butterflies has turned into a killing spree for Kitty.

My advice is that she should use the normal cat deterrent methods of dissuasion. Cats aren't supposed to jump on counters, cats aren't supposed to tear up furniture, as well as many other things cats aren't supposed to do. Unfortunately, they do them.

With all due respect, you are the sort of person who needs to read more before taking in a pet.

Taking in a pet is a social responsibility whether or not you are an "animal rights" sort of person, which I wouldn't label myself as, I'm just a pragmatist.

Animals have ingrained instinct. There's few better animals to show proof of this than a kitty. See how they try to bury their food? See how they try to bury their urine/feces? See how they hunt butterflies?

So too are hunting, scratching, climbing, etc. Kitties are in fact supposed to jump on counters and tear up furniture. That's what they do and if you don't like it you shouldn't get one, period. You do not have some inalienable right to have an animal that behaves according to completely arbitrary human standards.

These answers are not on a derailed train. The asker has asked about how to stop it, if it's toxic, and if he/she should get rid of those flowers that attract the butterflies, which contradicts your assertion that he/she cares more about the aesthetics of the garden than anything else.

Thankfully, it seems that the kitty is more important than the garden's aesthetics to the Asker. Even more thankfully, most people seem to agree to let the kitty do his thing because that's what kitties do. I hope you are not a pet owner.
posted by twiggy at 8:35 AM on August 14, 2006

Count me in with the "accept your cat's basic predatory nature" crowd. I wouldn't have commented at all, but I had to tell you that I adore you for the term "Lepidopteracide".
posted by DWRoelands at 10:06 AM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the answers, and the advice to calm down. My concern came mostly from the following areas, in rough order: worry that my cat would hurt himself by continually choosing to eat supposedly-poisonous varieties; worry that my backyard ecosystem was being stripped, especially since I have 8 different fruit trees (4 citrus) and more than 20 kinds of vegetables back there, grown organically and no-spray, and I really need those butterflies for pollination; worry that I think the multitude of butterflies are a key and lovely feature of my garden, and would rather not see them depopulated; worry that by putting in all those butterfly-friendly plants, I was complicit in baiting the trap, as it were.

For the record, he's actually a wonderful cat: sweet, gentle, well-behaved, and kind to guests and furniture alike. It's just a little hard for me to think of my little tubby tabby morphing into a stone cold killer, especially of something so pretty. But I will try to keep more firmly in mind that he is a cat, after all, not a teddy bear, appearances to the contrary be damned.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:17 AM on August 14, 2006

Aww cute kitty. I'd second the bell although I have no idea how well butterflies hear.

Also, I just wanted to chime in that I empathize how disturbing it must be to see Sammy chomping down on such pretty creatures.
posted by radioamy at 2:44 PM on August 14, 2006

Beautiful stripey kitty :D

Just to clarify, I often grow swan plants in my back yard and they always get stripped bare and totally eaten by the Monarchs, which then get eaten by the cats with no ill effect. So it's likely that at least some of the butterflies had the toxic substance in them, but the cats are now 11 years old and totally fine. It would be nice if they'd eat the cabbage butterflies instead but the Monarchs are bigger and slower.
posted by shelleycat at 1:35 AM on August 15, 2006

I don't know if you can see this very clearly from all the way up there at the top of your nose, twiggy, but most cat owners do not let their cats tear up their furniture nor parade around on their countertops. Maybe I came off a bit harsh when I said that "kitties are bad," but I really meant it in an affectionate way. E.g., part of their allure is their look of innocence after knocking over a large vase or something.

If the asker doesn't care about the butterflies, there is obviously no problem here. If the asker does care about the butterflies (which seemed to be the point of the whole question), use the typical methods of dissuasion anybody had mentioned earlier.

Why shouldn't I own pets?
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 4:31 AM on August 15, 2006

Little suspecting what an interesting thread this question would turn out to generate, I foolishly skipped it when it was fresh.

I think there may be a good reason your cat likes eating these butterflies. Your cat may like Monarchs because they are toxic-- more specifically, because their toxins are powerful emetics. Your (really beautiful) cat is no long hair, but his hair is long enough to generate hairballs, and hairballs can be hard for cats to get rid of on a cat-food diet. If cats were eating small animals, or even insects, they could spit out the the hair they ingest while grooming along with the skeletons of their prey, or poop them out; but since they don't get that, they have to resort to other expedients. I've seen lots of cats eat grass and weeds when they had hairballs. Perhaps your cat has simply discovered something better even than a better mousetrap.

It would be nice to know when your cat was born. There is a British tradition that cats born in May, which is unusually early, are unlucky, and that they will bring all manner of bugs and snakes into the house. I've often wondered if that's because snakes and bugs were all there was for their mothers to catch so early in the spring to feed the litters, and so the kittens' preferences get set that way for life.
posted by jamjam at 5:59 PM on September 18, 2006

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