Everybody loves coming home from a long day at work to be greeted by their cat. That initial greeting can turn gruesome if presented by a dead animal, however. Catching your cat in the act, playing with their terrified prey, is significantly worse.
The main reason that cat play with prey before killing it is self-preservation. Prey animals will fight back when cornered by a cat. Your cat will aim to exhaust prey before moving in for the kill.
Remember that many cats hunt for sport. This is an instinctive behavior. Your cat may be enraptured by the thrill of the hunt, and play is their reward. This guide will discuss why cats play with prey animals, and how you should react when it does happen.
- 1 Why Do Cats Play With Their Prey?
- 2 Why is My Cat Bringing Prey Home While it’s Still Alive?
Why Do Cats Play With Their Prey?
There are many reasons for a cat to play with their prey. Some come down to biology, and other simple survival.
Prey animals do not enjoy being hunted. Cats have predatory instincts ingrained into their psyche, and smaller animals are similarly hardwired to survive.
As a result, a rodent will bite and claw to survive, and a bird will peck. Even an insect may pack a sting. Cats are bigger and stronger than their prey, and thus have more stamina.
If they toy with the smaller animal, it will exhaust them and break their spirit. This leaves the feline less likely to sustain injury.
Testing for Danger
Sometimes, a cat is checking how dangerous their prey is. A provisional bout of playing will determine how likely the animal is to fight back.
If your cat is hunting a snake, for example, they’ll be checking if the reptile bites. If this is the case, the cat will admit defeat and seek more helpless prey,
Hunting behavior is ingrained in felines. To a cat, stalking, hunting and killing smaller animals is as natural as breathing and eating.
This means that, when they have completed a hunt, they look for a reward. This may be as simple as treating the prey animal as a toy.
Cats take hunting very seriously. Their bodies will be filled with adrenaline after a successful stalk. Playing with their prey, rather than immediately killing it, gives them a chance to relax.
If your cat is prone to eating prey, they’ll want to calm down first.
Inability or Unwillingness to Kill
All cats are hunters, but not all are killers. Some felines may never have learned how to kill If your cat is not going to eat their prey, they’ll want to prolong the experience. In your cat’s mind, the prey animal may be no different from their favorite toy.
It can be hard to watch your cat playing with a smaller animal. You even consider it to be cruel. In such a situation, you have to remember that cats and people are very different species.
What we consider to be unnecessary cruelty is pure instinct to a feline. Don’t judge your cat harshly for their actions – they do not know any different.
Why is My Cat Bringing Prey Home While it’s Still Alive?
This is rare, but it does happen occasionally. Small animals that are almost dead but not quite are not a gift from your cat. Instead, they are likely intended for other felines in the house.
This will usually be the case if your cat has a litter of kittens. Felines take their cues from their mothers, and learning to hunt is a vital life lesson.
Even if you have no kittens in your family, however, one cat may be helping another. If one of your cats never learned to hunt, two felines could be bonding through education.
How Long Do Cats Play with a Mouse or Bird Before Killing it?
This depends on how invested in hunting your cat is, and how hardy the prey is. Very few cats will take any chances after a hunt
They will wait until their victim is assuredly immobilized before moving in for the kill. This usually involves biting the prey’s neck – which risks a nip on the nose.
Some cats will contentedly play with their prey for hours. It keeps them amused, and it keeps them safe. Others, meanwhile, will lose interest if the other animal shows determination to live. It is not unheard of for a cat experienced in hunting to give up halfway.
This is not defeatism, but rather common sense. The feline knows that, if they conserve their energy, there are easier pickings out there. Other cats are more cavalier, lacking the patience to wait.
These cats will typically be more aggressive while playing. Forceful batting with paws can break the neck of a small animal, saving your cat time.
As a rule, the smaller the animal, the less time a cat spends playing with it. As pointed out by Smithsonian Magazine, cats are not efficient at killing mice and rats.
Most felines, especially domesticated pets that lack the ruthlessness of their feral counterparts, prefer easier targets.
A cat can usually put an end to a mouse or bird within a few minutes. Either they’ll kill it themselves, or the prey will suffer heart failure through stress.
Should I Rescue a Prey Animal Before My Cat Kills it?
If you notice your cat tormenting prey, you may feel compelled to rescue the small animal. Believe it or not, this may be crueler than allowing your cat to finish the job.
When a cat captures a small animal, it can be traumatic for the prey. We may like to imagine that they escape and live, but this is rarely the case. The small animal may be struggling with internal bleeding, leading to a slower demise.
T hey may be injured and immobile, making them an easy target for a different predator. It’s also likely that they’re in shock, and their heart could give up.
On top of this, there are also your cat’s feelings to consider. As far as your pet is concerned, they are not doing anything wrong. Teaching them that hunting is a bad thing can be very damaging to cats. It’s akin to making a cat feel that elimination is naughty.
It can be hard to take, but leave your cat to their hunt. If you bring you the spoils as a gift, smile sweetly and thank them. And perhaps most importantly, don’t come between them and prey while their blood is up. Your cat may turn the attention of their teeth and claws onto you instead.
How Do Cats Hunt?
The most common method of feline hunting involves stalking and pouncing. This is broken down into these steps:
- The cat will locate its prey. They may smell it initially. They may hear it. They could even catch a glimpse of movement using their excellent peripheral vision. You’ll typically know if your cat has entered hunting mode, as they will freeze on the spot.
- Once a cat has pinpointed their prey, they will very quietly and slowly stalk it. This will involve dropping to their belly, and creeping up behind. If the prey hears our cat, they’ll flee. This is why cats move so slowly and methodically. They may even remain as still as a statue for minutes on end. This is why some people placed belled collars around their cat’s neck. The sound made by tinkling bells warns a bird of mouse that a cat is coming. As you can imagine, this can be hugely frustrating for a feline.
- When your cat feels close enough, they’ll pounce. This is designed to capture the quarry. This is rarely enough to kill the prey at once though, hence the playing. Your cat may need to pounce several times, and bat the animal around with their paws. As discussed, this behavior exhausts the prey. It could also lead to a broken spine, immobilizing the other animal.
- Once your cat is confident that the animal will not fight back, they’ll often kill them. This is done by sinking their sharp teeth into the prey’s neck. This separates the skull and backbone, killing the other animal instantly.
What happens next depends entirely on your cat’s personality. Some will walk away, content that the fun is over. Others will eat the prey. Others still will bring it for you as a gift.
Do Cats Eat Their Prey?
As we have mentioned, some cats like to eat their prey. This is not the case for all felines, though. As a general rule, domesticated cats hunt for sport rather than food. This means they may lose interest in small animals after they have completed the kill.
One thing to remember is that cats are obligate carnivores. They need meat to remain healthy. Part of this is because animal products contain Taurine, an amino acid essential to feline health. If your pet feels that they lack sufficient Taurine, they may look for it elsewhere.
According to Cattledog Publishing, however, hunting instincts and hunger are controlled by different brain components. This means that even a well-fed pet will hunt at any opportunity.
If you adopt a formerly stray cat, though, old habits are very hard to break. Keep an eye on your pet’s weight in such a circumstance.
If your cat eats any wild animals, you’ll need to monitor their health. It’s no secret that rats and mice, for example, carry all manner of diseases.
At the very least, ensure that your cat is de-wormed no less than twice a year. Also, it’s worth upgrading your annual vet examination to twice yearly. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Do Cats Enjoy Killing?
In a word, yes. The University of Georgia teamed with National Geographic to record roaming cat activity, dubbed Kitty Cam. The results were eye-opening.
Based on cameras attached to 37 felines, cats will hunt anything smaller that crosses their path. This does not mean that cats are psychopathic, cruel or unpleasant. It all comes down to a word that we used multiple times already – instinct.
If you see a $20 bill on the ground, you’re likely to pick it up instinctively. Sure, you may then look around to see if somebody close by dropping it. That doesn’t change the fact that, upon sight, you and acted upon instinct. Well, a prey animal is the $20 dollar bill of the feline world. A cat that happens upon prey will often hunt before they even think about it.
What was also interested in the Kitty Cam experiment was how cats reacted after the hunt. 49% of felines simply left the animal at the location of the kill.
They had their fun, and were ready to move on. 28% of the cats chose to eat the spoils of their hunt. The remaining 23%, meanwhile, took the animal home with them. This would presumably have been dropped at an owner’s feet as a gift.
It is possible, however, that the cat chose to eat the prey at home. Sometimes, a feline will wait until their post-hunt adrenaline calms down and feast in comparative comfort.
Can I Train My Cat Not to Hunt and Kill?
You may not enjoy your cat’s predilection for hunting and killing. Unfortunately, you need to get used it. Hunting is so hardwired into feline nature that it’s a hard habit to break.
Occasionally, cats never learn how to hunt. Senior cats can also lose interest as they become less mobile. If neither of these circumstances applies to your pet, however, they will want to hunt.
As International Cat Care explains, the best case scenario is to control the instinct. This can be done in the following ways:
- Keep your cat at home at all times. This may frustrate a pet that has a taste for roaming, though. If you choose this, you must take time out of your day to play with your cat. Hunting and stalking-based games are not the same, but they’re better than nothing.
- Set an indoor/outdoor schedule for your cat. Letting your cat roam during the day but locking them up at night protects nocturnal wildlife. This means that many smaller animals will be safe from your cat’s attention. Again, though, you’ll have to keep your cat amused and exhausted by bedtime. Nobody wants to be kept awake by a crying cat demanding to be let out.
- Fix your cat with a belled collar. This is a controversial practice, as some consider it cruel. It may also drive you crazy if your cat is at home. It will, however, make it difficult for your cat to hunt birds successfully. If you’re prepared to deal with the sound, and your cat’s frustration, it remains an option.
Spaying or neutering your cat will not impact upon their predatory drives. It will, however, make them less territorial and desperate to wander. If you decide to keep your cat indoors, spaying or neutering is highly advisable.
Cats are going to hunt smaller animals. This is a universal truth, as inescapable as water being wet and grass being green. What’s equally likely is that this hunting is done for pleasure, leading to playing with prey.
It may look like unnecessary cruelty from your cat, but that’s not the case. 99% of the time, cats are following their instinct and preserving their safety.
Next time you see your pet toying with a harmless victim, ask yourself a question. Would you rather the prey escapes and your cat is hurt, or your pet stays healthy? Hard as it may be, it’s sometimes best to let nature take its course.