Why Do Cats Play with Their Prey?

Cat and Mouse, White Cat, Wikimedia Commons

There’s a common misconception that cats torment their prey for fun, but 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, so they must temporarily release the prey to get at the nape of the neck, during which the prey may escape or counterattack. 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, which reduces her risk of injury, 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. The prey must be sufficiently tired and dazed for the cat to make a successful 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 exhausted enough for her to finish it off. If she attempts to end 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. All cats have the hunting instinct, but 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, as 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 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.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

Reference: Tabor, Roger. (1997). Understanding Cat Behaviour. Cincinnati, OH: F&W Publications, Inc.

9 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Play with Their Prey?”

  1. Makes sense. It did kind of seem to me that cats don’t do it for fun because it doesn’t seem like it (I know how my cat plays and it’s not like that). But I just couldn’t understand why it still does it. Even when there’s no real need for it, like when it catches a really small mice, it still does it.

    Well, in the end, there isn’t really anything for us to “understand” per se, it’s just how cats act. But it is disturbing to watch it happen.

    Whenever my cat brings me such tormented animals and I see they won’t live long anyway, I just take them away from the cat and kill them swiftly. I use a big rock or something like that and kill them in an instant with maximum force. I know many of you won’t approve this, but this isn’t a matter of principles, like “well you should not kill animals” or “it is illegal”. I’m not killing random animals on the street for no reason. It’s a fact that these animals will undergo much more slow suffering if you don’t end it. It is emotionally hard to do it, but it’s even harder to watch the suffering go on.

  2. Wow, it’s really well explained! And so much more instructive that just “because it’s instinct, that’s all”! Thank you so much, your article helped me to accept that cat behaviour.

  3. I don’t mind my cat killing, it’s his natural instinct the only time I have ever felt bad for an animal is when he caught a gecko and it started to sqwak but he quickly killed it after that anyway. He also kills cockroaches but he never eats them though, he tried that once and sicked it up aftwards and never tried to eat another one after that but as I said he still enjoys killing them though.
    I love my cat and I love how good of a hunter he is.

  4. My cat had leapt in the window with a live, huge winged cockroach in her mouth, sending me running and screaming. She also likes to put her toy mouse in her food bowl and eat around it.

    And my sister’s cat had brought home a live snake, which they can’t find up to this day. It’s still in the house, somewhere…

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