This article explains why cats hunt, how they hunt, and what owners can do to reduce the impact of their cat’s hunting on local wildlife, whilst also providing an outlet for this natural feline behaviour.
Why cats hunt?
Cats are mammals like us, however, unlike us, cats are obligate carnivores and must eat meat in order to survive. Certain specific amino acids (e.g. taurine) are essential for cats, however, due to their carnivorous nature, cats have lost the ability to synthesize these amino acids and so require them direct from animal sources (i.e. meat) within their diet.
As cats have evolved as a solitary species, they need to be self-sufficient and hunt independently. Being responsible for their own survival, cats possess a range of physical attributes and behaviours and a well-developed sensory system which enables them to be affective predators. Cats use a combination of sight, sound and smell during the hunting process as well as other abilities such as being able to detect vibrations.
Owners often wonder why their well-fed cat hunts at all. The feline motivation to hunt is strong and so cats engage in hunting opportunities whenever they arise, regardless of whether they feel hungry or not. Also, from an evolutionary point of view, it probably isn’t beneficial for an animal to wait until it’s hungry before it then hunts as a hungry animal may be less likely to hunt successfully as its energy levels would be lower.
Owners also find it difficult when cats appear to play with their prey, seeing this as cruel or unnecessary.
It’s thought that ‘playing’ with prey before dispatching it serves a number of purposes for the cat. It helps to tire and disorient the prey so they’re less likely to hurt the cat. A bird’s beak or the teeth of a small rodent could inflict significant injury to a cat when the cat puts their face close to the prey in order to inflict a bite, typically at the back of the prey’s neck, to kill it. ‘Playing’ with the prey may also help the cat to assess the level of risk that the potential prey poses to them. As the cat has evolved as a species that needs to hunt to live, any injury has the potential to be dangerous (e.g. even a small wound can become infected) and so cats are highly motivated to protect themselves from injury, even when hunting. Because of the way a cat’s eyes and vision work, it’s also thought that keeping the prey moving helps the cat to locate the prey to ensure it doesn’t get away.
Cats sometimes bring their prey home. Although this aspect of hunting behaviour isn’t fully understood, one possible reason for it is that the cat is bringing the prey home to their core area where they feel safe to settle and eat the prey undisturbed. Alternatively, a cat may also do this to safely store the prey to eat at a later time. Also, if the prey is still alive when brought home, being in a strange environment is likely to disorientate the prey and make it easier to dispatch.
How cats hunt?
Domestic cats (house and feral cats) tend to be generalist hunters that will predate on small rodents, birds and insects in the main and can switch from hunting one type of prey to another. Cats will also prey on reptiles, rabbits and other animals (e.g. squirrels).
Cats have evolved to be most active when potential prey tends to be active so they’re more likely to be successful when hunting. Domestic cats are often observed to be more active during dawn and dusk.
Hunting strategies tend to be either mobile or stationary. Hunting is said to be mobile when a cat is moving from one location to another and pauses to hunt when it becomes aware of potential prey. Hunting is stationary when a cat adopts a ‘sit-and- wait’ strategy.
Cats respond to certain cues which trigger the cat to hunt – high pitched sounds (e.g. squeaks), rustling and rapid movement. When hunting, cats typically engage in a sequence of behaviours including watching, stalking, chasing, pouncing and catching. When we play with our cats, we see these behaviours in action too.
What to do if your cat hunts?
If you cat is good at hunting, it is worth trying to manage the behaviour in order to reduce the impact of this on local wildlife, particularly mice and birds. It’s also worth putting more effort in to this during the times when potential prey breed and also when they tend to feed.
Don’t punish your cat if you see them hunting or if they bring prey home. Hunting is a natural, normal behaviour for a cat which they’re highly motivated to do so punishing the cat will be confusing for the cat at best and potentially harmful to your cat’s welfare and your relationship with your cat.
Some owners fit their cat with a bell and collar to try and alert potential prey to their cat’s presence. However, great care should be exercised with collars (and the bells) to avoid your cat getting injured if the collar gets caught on something (e.g. a tree) or your cat manages to get a leg between the collar and their neck. If you decide to do this ensure; the collar is a snap open collar which will open when pressure is put on it; that it’s of good quality without any dangly bits; that you regularly check it fits properly (you should only be able to get 1 to 2 fingers between the collar and your cat’s neck); that you check the bell has large grooves which don’t taper to avoid trapping claws.
Other products exist on the market to reduce a cat’s ability to hunt (e.g. bibs). However, these can interfere with other patterns of natural behaviour and can potentially be dangerous for a cat as they’re likely to reduce a cat’s visual field through limiting their peripheral vision. They could also interfere with a cat’s ability to climb out of the way of any danger.
To try and reduce the likelihood of successful hunting, some owners opt to keep their cat indoors during the times when their cat tends to hunt the most or when potential prey tends to be active (e.g. dawn and dusk). However, during these times, it’s important to provide alternative outlets for your cat’s hunting instinct by providing other forms of stimulation indoors (e.g. puzzle feeders, scatter feeding, hiding food around the house, play, interactive toys etc.).
Birds tend to be more active during the day so another option is to provide safe havens for birds and other wildlife in your garden, yard or other outside area which aren’t easily accessible to your cat. This could simply involve ensuring that bird tables are high up, difficult for a cat to climb up and in open spaces away from things like bushes or structures that your cat could hide under or climb on to. This should reduce the number of places your cat could ambush a bird from and give birds as much warning as possible of your cat’s presence.
Play with your cat to provide an outlet for this natural behaviour. Try to mimic the hunting sequence (e.g. allowing your cat to stalk, chase etc.) during play and help to minimise frustration by allowing your cat to consummate the hunting process by providing them with something to pounce on and a treat or piece of tasty food to eat at the end (e.g. a prawn wrapped in paper). Ensure that play isn’t frightening or intimidating for the cat and try and avoid frustration by ensuring play is achievable and within your cat’s capability.
As written by pet behaviourist Sue Hartley, seen on our expert profile:
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