Feral Cats Munch on Human Corpses: Forensic Study
Thu, April 22, 2021

Feral Cats Munch on Human Corpses: Forensic Study

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they are meat-eaters. They are animals that derive their nutrient and energy requirements from a diet that consists exclusively or mainly of animal tissue / Photo by: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons


Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they are meat-eaters. They are animals that derive their nutrient and energy requirements from a diet that consists exclusively or mainly of animal tissue. Some cats eat through predation, others by scavenging. But can cats munch on a decomposing human body? A new forensic study says yes.

Feral Cats Eat Decomposing Human Corpses

In a study that appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, authors Sara Garcia from the Forensic Investigation Research Station of Colorado Mesa University and her team documented the scavenging patterns of two feral cats on human remains. This supports a previous comment made by Carolyn Rando, Ph.D., forensic anthropology at the UCL Institute of Archeology. She said, “Yes, your pets will eat you when you die, and perhaps a bit sooner than is comfortable.” She explained how pets will start eating the neck, then the face, and other exposed areas. If the human remains are not discovered in time, the animals may proceed to eat the rest of the body. Horrifying as this may sound, the new study from Garcia and the team has provided details of the animal’s scavenging activity with accompanying photos.

The team said that cases wherein cats scavenge for food are rare because most would prefer hunting. Yet, more cases of “body farms” have been established in recent decades. During their experiment, the scientists focused on the two dead bodies that were unclaimed and donated for scientific research. They left these corpses outdoors in various positions to record how they would supposedly decompose. Cameras were installed in the surroundings. Forensic scientists usually use technology to watch the changes over time and also in cases of calamity and crime. The recordings showed whether the corpse was moved.

What the researchers discovered was footage of two feral cats sneaking in to eat. These cats were recognized to be born and raised wild and not domesticated. How could they tell by just looking at the cats? They answered that the facility where they conducted the experiment was far from private residences but the feral cats in the footage returned on consecutive nights to eat food. This is why the authors assumed that they were wild cats.

Scavenging Activities of the Two Cats

Cat#1, which is a tabby type, started visiting the cadaver of a 79-year-old woman. Her body had been chilled before it was brought to the Colorado facility and laid outdoors for an experiment. The tabby cat mostly ate the woman’s body slightly out of the camera’s range but the overall damage to the corpse shows that the cat focused on the soft tissue on the chest and arm. These parts of the human body contain fat and skin.

To continue with the study, a cage was placed over the corpse for one week so that the cat could not get through. However, after it was removed, the tabby cat also returned and consumed the body almost every night for the next 35 days.

Cat#2, a black feral cat, preferred the dead body of a 70-year-old man. It returned to eat the body for 10 nights. It disappeared for a month but returned for two more consecutive nights.

The scientists shared that there were 40 other dead bodies in the facility placed around the time when the cats started their scavenging and these bodies were also in the same decomposition stage. Yet, the tabby cat showed no interest in other dead bodies just like the black cat. They did not scavenge on the new donors found adjacent to the two dead bodies. The common thing about the two feral cats was that they stopped the scavenging activities at the start of moist decomposition. This may mean that feral cats prefer fresh tissue. “Once they find a food that they like, they’ll stick with it,” Garcia added.

The Scientific Value of Their Study

The team said that they hope their findings will help people, especially in their field, understand the behaviors of the animal scavengers that are also prevalent in the United States. This may help investigators know the difference between postmortem and perimortem tissue damage. The scientists also observed that the cats preferred soft parts of the body, such as the nose, hands, and feet.

Feral Cats and Cat Food Industry Statistics

A pet owner survey conducted by database company Statista shows that there were a total of 73 million cats in US households in 2000, 77.7 million in 2002, 90.5 million in 2004, 88.3 million in 2006, 93.6 million in 2008, 86.4 million in 2011, 95.6 million in 2013, 85.8 million in 2015, and 94.2 million in 2017, and 95.6 million cats in 2018.

On the other hand, there are 60 to 100 million homeless cats living throughout the US, research published by the US National Library of Medicine shows. These feral cats do not depend on humans to shelter, water, and feed them. Instead, they live hard lives on the streets. Diseases, such as infectious peritonitis, leukemia, feline AIDS, and viral conjunctivitis, are common in them as they are left outdoors and are not seen by veterinarians.

In South Korea, there were 15,146 street cats sterilized and included in the trap-neuter-return programs in 2018.  The other provinces mentioned included Seoul (10,990 street cats), Busan (7,164), Gyeongnam (3,354), Chungnam (2,609), Daegu (1,908), Incheon (1,586), Jeonbuk (1,396), Gyeongbuk (1,387), Gangwon (1,264), Ulsan (1,235), Jeju (1,143), Daejeon (898), Jeonnam (800), Gwangju (732), Chungbuk (466), and Sejong (100). The purpose of the TNR program is to control the number of feral cats by trapping them, neutering them, and returning them back where they were found.

Just as cats are gaining popularity, the cat food market is also growing. Market research company Mordor Intelligence shared that the global cat food market was valued at US$ 20.32 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow at 4.28% CAGR between 2019 and 2024. Cat food has also become more specialized by considering the breed and life stage of the animal. Most pet parents prefer ready-made cat food than homemade food to maintain the well-being and health of their other animals.

The chilling study conducted in Colorado may be disturbing to many but it shows the threat of feral cats to native wildlife and mammals. It also highlights how feral cats still possess some aspects of their wild ancestors.