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Why do Cats Leave Hunting Trophy Gifts?

My cat loves to play with the plastic rings from the tops of milk jugs. He stalks them, pounces on them, tosses them around, and he sometimes brings one to me and drops it at my feet. Like many cat owners, I'll even find toys in my shoes from time to time. Why do cats leave us "presents?"

Cats and hunting

Cats are natural hunters. They can run as fast as 30 miles per hour, jump as high as six times their body length, they have pads on their paws to allow them to stealthily stalk their prey, and they have sharp teeth and claws made for killing and climbing. Throw in the feline hunting instinct, and it all adds up to one of the world's top predators. Cats tend to prefer small mammals and even reptiles over birds, probably because birds have good vision, relatively high intelligence, and of course, the ability to fly, all of which make them more difficult to catch. Still, many songbirds have been unwilling victims of a high jumping cat.

The prey doesn't have to be animate - if a cat is an indoor-only cat, toys, scraps of paper, bits of your clothing, your ankles, or other random objects will make worthy substitutes.

The trophy (or gift)

Cats sometimes present their "kill" to members of their human family, or leave the offering where the humans will find it. Waking up to find a catnip mouse at the foot of the bed is cute. However, this behavior is less endearing when the gift is a real animal. It's not uncommon for owners of outdoor (or indoor/outdoor) cats to wake up to find evidence of their pets' hunting prowess in the form of dead rodents on the back porch. Indoor cat owners are not completely immune to this - a mouse once got into my house, and even though I tried to "catch and release" him, I failed. I found him outside my bedroom door, minus his head, the next morning.

Why do cats leave these "gifts" for us?

Cat behaviorists currently have three different theories about why our cats leave us such presents.

  • Some believe the cat is proud of her hunting skills, and since she sees us as members of her family, she's just showing off to us. It's a cat's way of giving us a compliment and saying that we're important to her.
  • Another theory says that cats see us as poor hunters, and want to help us out. Some say the cat is helping out by providing extra food, and others say the cat is trying to teach us how to hunt. The latter may explain why cats sometimes bring us prey that is still alive.
  • The last theory says that the cat is simply bringing the prey home to eat later, because he knows we won't eat it.

Whatever the reason, your cat will be confused if you're angry or upset about the gift. Dispose of the "treat" when your cat isn't looking. (If the animal is still alive and you'd like to keep him that way, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice. It's likely that the critter will need antibiotics if he is to survive).

How do I get my cat to stop bringing me animals?

While you can often teach a cat not to hunt other household pets such as hamsters or companion birds, you cannot teach a cat not to hunt at all. Cats will hunt even if they are well-fed. The hunting instinct is too strong for them not to. The only way to stop them from bringing home wild animals (dead or alive) is to keep them indoors. This is safer for the cat as well as for the neighborhood wildlife.

More about cat behavior:

  • Understanding Cat Talk
    They may not speak English, but domesticated cats "talk" to us and to each other. We're all familiar with the meow, purr, and hiss. What do these (and other) feline sounds mean?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Angelladywriter on October 13, 2019:

Nice article about cats. I keep my cat indoors for that reason so that other animals could feel safe. Keep up the good writing.

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on October 04, 2012:

Haha, love the story about the ravens! Such cool birds...

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 03, 2012:

The last paragraph is the most important. Cats are trying to teach their owners how to hunt. I had juvenile ravens in Maine that did the same thing with mice. I began to eat my lunch outside, plus gave them a little. They saw that I ate, and all was fine with their world.

Jennifer Bridges (author) from Michigan on October 03, 2012:

Thanks for the comments!

I'm all for keeping cats indoors, and I do my best to keep my own kitty indoors, though I admit that he does escape now and then while I'm taking out the garbage or bringing in groceries. Fortunately, he doesn't stay out for more than a few minutes - something will usually spook him and send him running back to the door. He's been a bit paranoid ever since he was dive-bombed by a flock of sparrows a few years ago.

haopee on October 02, 2012:

I totally agree with you on this one. These presents are just too funny and annoying sometimes. Perhaps if we think of it as a way of them trying to please us because we are their owners and "soul mates" we will appreciate it more.

I love the third reason from the expert. It sounds more practical.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on October 02, 2012:

Well said, especially your closing statement. Our precious kitties are far safer indoors-only. People will argue that it is not "natural" to keep a cat indoors, to which I reply, "Is is 'natural' for said cat to be flattened by a car?"

It is too late to argue "natural." We stepped outside of that arena centuries ago when we began domesticating various animals, including the cat. To paraphrase a famous quote, "Let them hunt strings!"

Voted up, interesting and useful ;-)

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