It is ironic that the trait which lead to humans domesticating cats is now one which most cat owners dislike. Cats were first domesticated almost 10,000 years ago. They played an important symbiotic role in protecting stored grains from mice.
So why is it that our well fed and well-pampered felines continue to hunt when they have everything handed to them on a platter? There are several reasons cats continue to hunt.
- Hunting behavior is hard wired. Domestication may have changed how cats trust humans, but some behaviors remain regardless of how pampered our felines have become. It is important to be able to maintain those vital hunting skills. This ensures the continued survival of cats and why feral cats (who are essentially a generation or two removed from domesticated cats) are such efficient hunters.
Teaching humans how to hunt:
- Secondly, it has been suggested that cats, especially female cats, bring home animals because they think us humans are pretty useless when it comes to hunting, after all, how often do we bring home a rat? This makes sense as kittens learn to hunt in a variety of ways, including play and stalking behavior with siblings and from their mother who will initially bring home a dead animal for her and the kittens to share, then as they grow up she will bring home a half dead animal and allow her kittens to finish it off. So it is entirely possible when a cat deposits an injured animal at our feet, she is trying to show us how to hunt as she would teach her own kittens and would probably like us to join in and kill it. Most domesticated females are spayed and will never have a litter of her own, so we are the next best thing.
- It is also possible that by bringing home dead animals the cat is contributing to the house by bringing you a gift. As much as we don't appreciate a dead bird on the doorstep, in the cat's mind, she is providing for her family (humans included).
- Finally, they do it because they enjoy it. We've all seen our cats perform summersaults when the laser pointer or wand toy comes out, so it stands to reason that they enjoy engaging in hunting/predatory type behaviors. I've not read or heard this theory be discussed however most of us know how much our cats enjoy stalking and pouncing on a wand toy, a rolled up piece of paper or a laser pointer. They are engaging in and enjoying hunting behaviour. So it stands to reason, if they do this with toys, why not do it when the real thing (a poor unfortunate mouse or bird) presents itself?
Why do cats torment their prey?
We have already covered the fact that mother cats teach their young to kill by bringing home a stunned and injured animal to teach us, humans, hunting skills. There is another reason domestic cats engage in this behaviour, Desmond Morris notes in his book 'Cat World, A Feline Encyclopedia' that cats in the wild are less likely to engage in a prolonged attack than our pet cats. This is because our cats are well fed and not hungry enough to immediately need to eat their catch, however, they still have the hunting instinct. Therefore they play with their prey before killing to prolong the experience.
Cats may also prolong the kill to avoid injury. Weakening and stunning it by batting it around until it is safe to inflict that final fatal bite. If the animal isn't sufficiently subdued, there is a risk your cat will be injured. Particularly with larger and stronger catches.
Should I let my cat hunt?
Many people turn a blind eye to their cat hunting, after all, they're just doing what they're good at. There are a number of good reasons why your cat should not hunt.
- The huge loss of native wildlife has had a huge impact on local populations of species who are already suffering due to climate change and humans taking over more and more land for development.
- There are very real risks of your cat contracting a contagious disease from an infected animal. Bear in mind that cats will often choose the weakest, and the weakest are usually the young, the old and the sick. Diseases include plague, tularemia, toxoplasmosis, lungworm, pseudorabies, salmonella and coccidiosis.
- Still, on the weak, another reason the prey may be weak is due to poisoning, it is not uncommon for cats to develop secondary poisoning after ingesting a rodent that has been baited. Rodenticide poisoning in cats can be rapidly lethal.
- The risk of injury from a bite or a peck. An animal fighting for its life will do everything in its power to get away. Also, cats don't discriminate, anything is fair game. Many cats have been killed taking on venomous snakes.
- There's always the risk that the animal he has just brought home is somebody's beloved pet.
- There are a number of parasites cats can catch from their prey including ticks, flukes, and parasitic worms.
What should you do if your cat brings home an injured animal?
- Get the animal away from your cat, the best method is to close off as many rooms as possible and spray your cat with water.
- Once he has released his catch, lock him up in another room and try to catch the animal, IF IT IS SAFE TO DO SO. Don't attempt to catch a dangerous animal such as a snake. Wear thick gloves to protect yourself.
- If your cat does bring home a potentially deadly or infectious animal, shut it in a room and call the relevant authorities. Don't attempt to kill it yourself, almost all native animals (in Australia) are protected and there is a risk you will be injured or infected by the animal yourself. Leave it to the experts. If you are unsure who to call, contact your local veterinarian who should be able to advise.
- If the animal is uninjured, release it back outside.
- If the animal is injured, carefully put it in cat carrier or box (with air holes) and either take it to your local veterinarian or call your local wildlife authority.
What can be done to stop cats hunting?
The only way to completely eliminate hunting behaviour in cats is to keep them indoors. However, there are ways which may help reduce your cat's chances of hunting.
- Give him a collar and put one or two bells on it.
- Keep him indoors, or if you can't/won't do that, bring him inside on a night.
- If your cats are allowed to roam, try to discourage native wildlife by covering compost bins and not feeding birds.
- Make sure he is well fed. This won't stop all cats from hunting (as we have already discussed), but it may discourage some who would prefer to laze in the sun and roll in the dirt.