Why Do Cats Play With Their Prey?


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Even as a mature cat owner it can be hard to accept every nuanced feline behavior. To some people, cats can seem cruel when they’re hunting, and even to cat people, an unexpected dead gift is too much.

But things really start to take a disturbing turn when you see cats playing with their prey.  Is it possible to explain this behavior and redeem our feline companions?

Why do cats play with their prey at all?

In some cases, “playing” is a practical way for cats to exhaust their prey and reduce their risk of injury. Cats also regularly hunt when they’re not hungry and it seems that cats enjoy the entertainment of batting around dead or dying prey the same way they would a stuffed mouse. 

If you would like to know more about why cats let go of and then recapture their prey in such a playful manner then you are in the right place!

Why Do Cats Play With Their Prey?

While we might see our kitties as tiny and adorable balls of fur, we also need to acknowledge that there’s an edge to their purring sweetness. Domestic cats are predatory animals, and they have to hunt for their food in order to survive in the wild.

For centuries we’ve benefited from their hunting skills by hiring cats as mousers and pest controllers, but we also noticed that cats don’t simply hunt, they also seem to enjoy playing with their prey. Before we call this behavior disturbing, I think we need to understand where our kitties are coming from.

Reason 1: They Don’t Know How To Kill

I know that it seems logical that a cat born and raised under any conditions will be naturally good at hunting, but you need something more than just the predatory instinct to be actually good at it, you also need practice.

The biologist Roger Tabor states that “kittens who are able to observe their mothers hunt and kill become better at these skills themselves.” So, cats learn the art of stalking and grappling from playing with their littermates, but they only learn how to strike the killing blow from their mother.

Cats that were separated too early from their mothers and were raised in a sheltered environment wouldn’t necessarily know how to efficiently kill their prey. Instead, they’d most likely stalk, pounce and attack until the prey was too exhausted, and it would take them much more time to actually kill it.

If your kitty has been a housecat and only accidentally managed to catch a critter, they would most likely play with it. A study done by the Journal of Veterinary Behavior explains that furry mice are the preferred toy for the majority of cats, and if you own such a toy, your cat may be treating a live mouse like a recreational plaything and not realizing that it’s real.

Reason 2: They’re Honing Their Skills

Even an indoor sheltered kitty with little to no experience with live prey loves hunting. As RSPCA points out “cats have a natural predatory instinct so they enjoy toys that encourage them to chase and pounce.”

This everyday play whether it’s done by an outside cat with rodents or birds or an indoor kitty with toys is partly for their entertainment, but it’s also a continuous training in order for them to stay alert and fit. In other words, cats never stop hunting, and so they’ve developed different approaches depending on their prey.

According to Applied Animal Behavior Science, cats have different hunting preferences. While some enjoy the challenge of difficult prey, others will go for the easy kill. So, if you find your kitty catching prey and then letting it go only to catch it for the hundredth time it’s probably because they’re trying different approaches, or they’re not so sure about their skills so they’re trying to test their abilities.

It’s also worth mentioning that while cats do experience pleasure when they hunt and play with their prey, it’s not appropriate to humanize that emotion. A cat’s hunting behavior doesn’t come from a place of cruelty but survival. In order for them to repeat the hunting experience each time they see available prey, their brain has to see it as a positive mental stimulation, otherwise, they wouldn’t get enough motivation to hunt.

Reason 3: It’s Part of Their Hunting Method

Cats spend their kittenhood learning how to properly stalk and catch their prey and when they’re old enough they start practicing until hunting becomes second nature to them. During this period cats will learn a few different tricks and techniques that can make their hunting sessions successful.

Depending on the cat’s size and the size of their prey, the hunt will either look like play or a quick catch and kill. If you catch your kitty hunting for alive animals, or even when they play with a bouncy toy you will also notice the different methods, they use to capture their prey. In some situations, they’ll rely on short bursts of energy, by stalking their prey and quickly running and pouncing after it.

Under different circumstances, a cat will be more cautious and seem less active as they’ll spend most of the hunt sitting and waiting for the right moment to strike. The journal Animal Behavior shows that “the bigger and more dangerous the prey, the longer the cat plays with it.

A cat that’s not used to hunting will also be more fearful, and act in a more playful manner in order to either tire and weaken the prey and avoid potential injuries. Research has also shown that large and strong male cats can handle a greater range of prey thanks to their greater body mass and bite force.

This doesn’t mean that smaller cats haven’t tried or haven’t taken down larger and more dangerous prey. What truly factors into a cat’s prey size is their age, because an older cat would have the skills and the practice to take down that kind of game.

Reason 4: They’re Not Hungry and Playing With Their Prey Is Fun

I think the best explanation as to why a cat would play with their prey is the fact that it mostly happens when they’re not hungry. Cats are opportunistic hunters and according to research cats are more likely to kill an animal if they’re hungry, if the prey is small and easy to catch. If that’s not the case, then your cat will probably play with the newly caught animal for a prolonged time until they’re either bored or become hungry.

Wild cats as well as farm cats are more likely to be neophiliac when it comes to food and they will have no problem broadening their food variability. So, it makes sense that even a well-fed farm cat will from time to time hunt another animal. Moreso, since the hunger factor, isn’t usually there they’ll spend more time playing with their prey before actually eating it.

What you might think is playing might also be your cat moving the prey from one location to a safer one, where they can either eat it in peace or leave it for later, and finally, they might also be bringing you the prey as a gift of love!

Why Do Domestic Cats Prey?

I know it might seem strange to find your feline companion playing with prey, especially if they’ve got a bowl full of their favorite food, but as we’ve established and Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB can confirm “the feline desire to hunt is not connected to the sensation of hunger and no matter how well you feed your cat it will still react to the sight and sound of prey with an instinctive stalk.

So, whether a cat is feral or a housecat they’ll look for that mental and physical stimulation that hunting and playing offer. If you have a cat that can go in and out of the house as they please, then chances are that they’ll bring you a dead gift eventually, or you’ll find them playing with that gift.

You might be thinking that a cat in the suburbs or in the city won’t find much prey to catch, but researchers have found that “rodents were the most common prey in both environments (urban and rural), but shrews and reptiles were killed by cats more often in the rural environment while birds (mainly sparrows and pigeons) were more common in the urban environment.”

Each season will also present different opportunities for outdoor cats, so you might find them playing with different kinds of animals, and even if you think that your kitty doesn’t partake in such games because they’re domesticated and well-fed, you’ll be surprised to find what they do outside of your house when you’re not looking.

Why Does My Cat Play With Dead Prey?

Finding your cat batting at a running rodent might sound like a horrible situation, but it can be even more awkward when the prey is dead, and your kitty doesn’t seem to care. Before you start accusing your feline companion of meddling with dark magic, I want to tell you that it’s quite normal.

You see your cat might not be sure that the animal laying before them is dead, especially if they’re new to hunting. Cats will bat and poke at things around them to safely explore and interact with their surroundings.

It’s also possible that when they found the animal it was already dead. Movement is what interests cats and by batting the dead animal, they were probably trying to reenact a play session, as they would with their toys. Similarly, leopards and other large cats have been witnessed to play both with dead and live pray.

A cat that’s playing with dead prey could simply be cautious. They probably didn’t realize they made a kill this quickly. If the cat is inexperienced or the prey is larger and perhaps more dangerous the cat will continue to toss the prey around until they’re certain it’s dead, or until they’re bored.

Is It Safe For My Cat To Play With Dead Prey?

Hunting and playing with prey is normal for cats and a necessary activity when they’re in the wild, but for house cats, this can be a dangerous game to play. Patricia Walters from the New England Animal Medical Center, says that bones are the most common foreign object that can get stuck in the esophagus, and cause “excessive drooling, gagging, regurgitation, and repeated attempts to swallow.”

Cats that are not used to hunting or consuming live prey will have a bigger difficulty with digestion and food poisoning. As responsible cat parents, we know how healthy our cats are and we make sure that they’re getting the best nutrition out there, but can we be sure about the health of rodents and birds our cat might eat?

Most often than not these animals carry bacteria that can cause stomach bug symptoms, like vomiting or regurgitating possible diarrhea, and overall weakness. Rats and all sorts of critters can be hosts of external and internal parasites that can be transmitted to cats, like roundworms, tapeworms, fleas, ticks, and mites and some of these could also pose a danger to humans, and the most infamous and dangerous of them all is toxoplasmosis.

Aside from parasites and disease, your kitty could also ingest dangerous toxins like rat poison, which could prove fatal. Let’s not forget that eating a full mean and also eating prey can lead to weight gain and obesity, which affects a large number of domestic cats around the world.

If you intend on keeping your cat as an outdoor pet, then make sure they’re vaccinated, and are given medication for parasite prevention as prescribed by your vet. You might need to take them for check-ups regularly since outdoor cats face more dangers in their day-to-day life. Cats can also carry diseases without symptoms, so, in order to stay safe washing your hands after getting in contact with your cat is a must, and avoid kissing your cat, or allowing your cat to lick your face.

How Do I Stop My Cat From Playing With Their Prey?

There are multiple reasons you might want to stop your kitty from playing with prey. Depending on the country and area you live in, as well as the outdoor cat population some of you might be considering the consequences of feline hunting as they can be significant on the local wildlife.

There’s also the health and safety factor that might make you feel that your cat’s hunting behavior can be dangerous not only for the prey but the cat itself, for you, and your family. You might be wondering how you stop this instinctive behavior, well before you give up on the thought let’s go through some of your options!

Proper Nutrition

Hunger might not be the one and only motivator when it comes to hunting, but certain changes in your cat’s diet can decrease the amount of time they’d spend looking for prey. In fact, a study done by the University Of Exeter found that “introducing a premium commercial food where proteins came from meat reduced the number of prey animals cats brought home by 36%, and also that five to ten minutes of daily play with an owner resulted in a 25% reduction.”

Apart from switching to a protein-rich kitty food, you can split their daily intake into small portions throughout the day and night, mimicking in a way the feeding patterns they’d have in the wild. If you don’t want to spend all your day around your cat’s bowl I’d suggest you check our top list for automatic cat food feeders, that are perfect both for wet and dry food!

Redirecting Their Hunting Instincts

One thing we need to accept is that we can’t change our cats and their hunting instincts, but we can redirect this energy to something other than live prey. As I’ve explained above, what looks like play to us isn’t really play to cats, or at least that’s only a small part of it. Hunting is serious business, not only because it provides them with sustenance, but it’s a mental and physical outlet.

According to veterinarians, “regular play can help keep your kitty active and help her maintain a healthy weight. Interactive play between you and your cat may also help prevent some behavior problems that can arise from boredom.” And by fulfilling that need your well-fed kitty will be less inclined to hunt outside prey.

Just look at this ginger cutie, they definitely think this is a real mouse!

It’s worth experimenting with different toys that will most successfully trigger their predatory behavior and increase their engagement. If your cat really loves stalking, chasing, and trapping prey then you can look into toys that release kibble as they get knocked around. The PetSafe SlimCat Food on Amazon is definitely my personal favorite in this category!

Additionally, I’d suggest you go for bouncy toys and try replicating the movement of birds or mice during your play sessions. Once you’re done playing put these toys away so your kitty doesn’t lose the novelty factor. Instead, place random stuffed mice around the house so they have different toys to bat at when you’re not home or when you’re too busy to play with them.

Wearing a Belled Collar

If you’re planning on keeping your cat as an outdoor pet, or you have cats living on your farm or neighborhood, then I truly think you should consider getting them a collar with a bell. According to two different studies done in New Zealand and England, bells on collars seem to reduce the amount of prey caught by about half, which could be enough to no longer pose a great threat to ecosystems.

If you’re worried about your cat not liking the collar, then all you need to know is that with certain cats it might take some time for them to get used to it. But as with most parts of cat training, the sooner they start wearing it the easier it’s going to be. It’s also useful to know that the sound these bells produce isn’t loud enough to affect most cats or alert larger predators of a cat’s presence.

The most important thing you should be worried about though, when getting a belled collar is choosing a good quality collar, preferably with a quick-release mechanism. The GoTags Breakway Collars on Amazon is perfect not only for their quick-release mechanism but the fact that it offers a customized, embroidered ID for your cat. This way you don’t really have to worry about the personal information wearing off, or getting lost.

You could also combine a belled collar with a strict outdoor schedule, by letting your cat outdoors only when the prey species in your area aren’t as active. Cats have great vision in low levels of light, so dawn and dusk are the hours you’d want to keep them inside. It’s basically all about reducing your cat’s success rate for every hunting session.

Restricting The Outside

The last and the most successful option that will stop your kitty from playing with prey as well as protect them from consuming dead animals is keeping them as indoor cats only. When I’m talking about safety, I truly mean it because studies have shown that “urban cats that go outdoors have far shorter life spans (averaging 2 years or less), while most indoor cats will live over 15 years.” But even farm cats or cats in less populated areas can simply get sick from hunting, playing, and eating prey.

Keeping a kitty inside at all times will also protect other animals that our feline companions prey on. We can of course reduce and redirect this instinct, but the National Park Service, warns that “domestic house cats are highly skilled predators and outdoor cats living near or adjacent to natural areas are likely to prey on many of our natural neighbors.”

Changing your cat’s life in one day is impossible and it can only lead to problematic behaviors. That’s why it is crucial that you gradually decrease the time they spend outside and turn their indoor experience into a positive one. Scratching posts, cat trees, and lots of toys can help them transition from hunting real birds to bringing you stuffed toys instead. A clean litter box, yummy food, and a warm spot in your bed will also factor into their indoor wellbeing.

Don’t forget that you also have the option of training your feline overlord to walk on a leash, where you can stop them from catching prey and let alone playing with one. Or if you have a yard, you could invest in an outdoor cat enclosure like a catio where they can have the best of two worlds without the dangers of animal hunting.

Finally, whether you choose to keep them inside or not, spaying and neutering will reduce their need to go out in order to mate or mark the whole neighborhood as their personal territory! If you’ve got a cat in heat, you can find a list of low-cost spay/neuter clinics across the globe thanks to PetSmart by clicking here.

Closing thoughts

It’s true that while you can take the cat out of the hunting arena, you can’t remove the hunting instincts from a cat. But we’re here to understand the motivation behind this behavior and most importantly to remove the stigma that surrounds cats.

People have been calling cats cruel or that they enjoy torturing other animals, without truly knowing that it’s a survival instinct and that we cannot place human emotions and morals on other animals, in fact, human history will show us that such a thing would be somewhat insincere.

Have you ever seen your kitty playing with prey and did you find it disturbing or do they prefer your feathered-wand games to the real thing?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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