Written by Howie with help from Dr Joanna Woodnutt, a UK-based veterinarian, who has read the article and approved its accuracy.
A common question among cat owners is why their furry friends continue to hunt for prey when they are perfectly well-fed at home! So, just what does drive this kitty behavior?
Why do domesticated cats continue to hunt?
Whether domesticated or not, a cat is a predatory species, meaning that they are evolutionarily designed to hunt for their food. Like their wild ancestors before them, domestic felines are specialized and highly skilled solitary hunters. Until fairly recently, cats were kept primarily for pest control rather than companionship. Back then though, only the best feline hunters were able to survive, meaning that today’s domestic cats have descended from the ultimate, most adept hunters of their species. Because we have done relatively little when it comes to selective cat breeding (compared to dogs), their instinctive hunting behaviors remain strong. Cats are ‘obligate carnivores’, meaning that they have specific nutritional requirements that results in them needing to consume meat to survive. They hunt their prey alone, so they focus on smaller prey that they can catch on their own - most commonly birds and small mammals. Occasionally, a particularly skilled cat will catch larger prey, like a rabbit.
How much do they hunt?
Because their prey is relatively small, cats must make several kills throughout the day and night in order to consume their daily requirements for nutrition and energy. Surprisingly, a cat that receives no supplementary food from any other source or owner, can make as many 20 kills in a 24 hour period.
Due to this natural pattern of feeding, cats are well adapted to eating small but frequent meals. Despite being so perfectly adapted for hunting, domestic cats will usually gladly take advantage of any other food sources, such as meals provided by their owners, or any other foods they find through scavenging.
How do they hunt?
Cats typically approach hunting with stalking methods. Initially, they crouch down, and move very slowly with their head outstretched. As they get close enough to catch their prey, they stop and prepare to spring and pounce. It’s common to see them hold a temporarily tense position followed by a short sprint, before springing forward and striking their prey with their front paws.
Do they always hunt to eat?
A cat’s motivation to hunt is only partially caused by hunger. Because cats hunt alone, their survival instincts drive them to hunt long before they are hungry, to ensure that they are never caught short and starve. Cats have therefore evolved to be very opportunistic in their hunting behaviors, and change their pattern of hunting activities depending upon the food available.
A domesticated cat is sometimes also driven to eat its prey to provide more dietary variety. They are inherently neophilic, meaning that they enjoy trying different foods and like variety.
Why do they play with their prey and bring it home still alive?
Firstly, whilst they are instinctively driven to hunt, a well-fed domesticated cat may be fully satisfied and have no need to consume the prey that they catch. A hungry cat will kill and consume their prey immediately after capturing it.
‘Toying’ with their prey is widely considered to be due to their conflicting need to kill and their fear of being injured by their capture. Studies have shown that, the more fearful a cat is, the more they ‘play’ with their prey.
Such studies have also found that adult cats exhibit much more predatory behavior when playing with a domestic pet toy that resembles an actual item of prey, like a bird or rodent.
Why do they love hiding?
A cat’s love of hiding is also closely linked to its wild ancestral roots. In the same way that they often continue to hunt despite being well-fed at home, cats continue to hide away to feel safe, despite no longer being vulnerable out in the wild.
Before becoming domesticated, despite being a fierce predator, a cat would become extremely vulnerable to attack when resting out in the wild. For this reason, they are driven to find small, warm spaces where they can relax enough to sleep without the fear of being attacked, particularly from behind. That’s why snug beds like cat caves are such a great gift for a pet cat - they can maintain a vigil from the front, whilst generating continual warmth through their own body heat, and can enjoy the added security of having the rest of their body protected from harm.
Cats can also suffer with varying degrees of stress and anxiety, depending upon their environment (such as busy, noisy households), so having somewhere secure and comfortable to retreat to is important for their wellbeing. That is why, if a cat does not have a designated bed, they will typically find an alternative spot to hide away, such as under a bed or in a cupboard.
I have always had pet cats and remember finding it quite disturbing as a young child to find a half dead mouse on the doorstep! Whilst I understand that these behaviors are natural for cats, as a responsible pet owner, I have tried to minimize my cat’s hunting as best as I can. I tried keeping my current cat indoors, but his personality was having none of it! Once we started letting him out, he immediately started hunting and bringing a lot of prey home to us. Because we are so careful to feed him a very varied and specifically nutritious diet, I decided to step up the predatory-simulation play that we engaged in with him. After about a week of daily play using pretend rodents and birds, the instances in which he brought prey home lessened dramatically. It’s been about two months now and we’ve probably only had three or four ‘gifts!’
A cat’s instinct to hunt is natural, and the best things you can do if you want to minimize it is to provide small, frequent meals that are highly nutritious and varied, and play with them frequently in ways that mimic their hunting behaviors. Other than that, being a great cat owner means accepting and supporting their natural needs and instincts.