By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
There’s a common misconception that cats torment their prey for fun, but the reality is that cats have an instinct to play with their prey because it’s the only way they can make a kill without risking injury.
Cats Playing with Prey
Cats kill their prey by delivering a neck bite that severs the spinal cord. To do this, they must temporarily release the prey to get at the nape of the neck, but when they do so, they risk the prey escaping or counterattacking. Small animals will defend themselves if they get the chance. Mice, rats, and other rodents can deliver a vicious bite, and birds can peck. A cat has a very short muzzle, and to get close enough to apply the neck bite, she risks injury to her eyes and face from the prey.
A cat will “play” with her prey to tire it out in order to reduce the risk of injury to herself, but she’s not actually playing in the human sense. She’s simply doing the job that her instincts tell her she must do in order not to starve, and protecting herself in the process. If the prey is lively, the cat could suffer a serious bite that might become infected and lead to death. Only when the prey is sufficiently tired and dazed is the cat able to make the kill.
Sometimes a cat will appear to lose interest when the prey becomes still but then leap upon it as soon as it moves. This gives the appearance that the cat is toying with the poor creature, but this is just the cat’s way of ensuring that the prey is sufficiently dazed to safely finish it off. If she attempts to finish things too quickly, she could risk failure or serious injury.
Although they know that hunting is a natural behaviour, most cat owners don’t want to see other animals harmed. There are a number of ways to prevent cats from catching birds and small mammals, including putting bells on their collars, ensuring that bird feeders are out of reach, and investing in high-tech devices that warn prey of a cat’s approach. Although all cats have the hunting instinct, in well-fed housecats, this behaviour can be redirected toward toys designed to simulate prey.
Cats Bringing Home Live Prey
Many cats bring dead animals home as “gifts” for their loved ones, but some also bring in live prey to present to their owners, much in the way they would for their kittens to let them practice their hunting skills. A cat who brings live prey to her owner may believe that her human companion would appreciate the opportunity to practice these valuable skills.
Sometimes when a cat brings live prey home, instead of presenting it to her owner, she brings it to an area of the home that she considers her own space. In this case, she’s gaining a home court advantage – if she releases and recaptures the prey in its own territory, it will have a better chance of escaping, whereas on her own turf, she knows the layout and all the escape routes.
Reference: Tabor, Roger. (1997). Understanding Cat Behaviour. Cincinnati, OH: F&W Publications, Inc.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.