Understanding Hunting in Cats

Even domesticated cats still have their hunting instinct.Even domesticated cats still have their hunting instinct.
Even domesticated cats still have their hunting instinct.Even domesticated cats still have their hunting instinct.

Table of Contents:

  1. Why Do Cats Hunt?
  2. Are My Cats Giving Me Gifts?
  3. Feline Hunting Techniques
  4. Reducing Hunting Behavior in Cats

Cat owners know that it’s wonderful to buy gifts for their beloved felines. It’s decidedly less pleasant, however, when outdoor cats return the favor by offering gruesome “gifts” of their own. Countless cat owners have stepped out for the morning paper only to find dead (or worse, still-living) prey strewn across their doorsteps. This behavior (while grim) is in keeping with a cat’s natural predatory instincts, and studies suggest committed cat owners may be able to discourage it.

Why Do Cats Hunt?

Cats weren’t always doted on by loving owners. Even the most pampered domestic cat is a member of a predatory, carnivorous species and a descendant of wild animals. Out in the wild, only the most adept hunters survive, so today’s cats have a long history of successfully capturing their prey.

Compared to dogs, cats have experienced little selective breeding throughout the years. This helps explain why the generations have only dampened the domestic feline’s hunting instincts rather than snuffing them out all together. For many outdoor cats, the mere sight or scent of potential prey is enough to trigger a shift from housecat to hunter.

Hunting doesn’t necessarily mean your cat is hungry. The feline-focused non-profit International Cat Care notes that, on average, hunting attempts are successful less than 50% of the time and that cats would need to catch between 10 to 20 birds or small mammals every day to survive on their own. As such, cats have evolved to at least try and stalk prey whenever they get the chance.

Are My Cats Giving Me Gifts?

Yes. It’s possible that your pet has noble intentions when they drop an animal’s half-eaten corpse on the porch. In the wild, mother cats hunt on behalf of their young, returning with food to share. A domesticated female cat who’s been spayed may redirect these nurturing instincts to their owner. Your cat may also simply be saving some of its meal for later.

Feline Hunting Techniques

Cats typically employ three different techniques for hunting and capturing unsuspecting prey:

  • Stalking and pouncing: After identifying a target, cats crouch low and begin slowly moving toward it. Once they’ve gotten close enough, they’ll rear back on their hindlegs and leap to capture their prey.
  • Ambushing: Like stalking and pouncing without the stalking, this strategy sees cats lock onto their prey and lie in wait until an opportune moment.
  • Fishing: If you live near a body of water, you may witness your cat reaching its paw in an attempt to scoop out fish. Breeds that aren’t afraid of taking a dip may even wade into the water to find a potential meal.

Reducing Hunting Behavior in Cats

If you’d rather not be surprised by slain critters, there are several steps you can take in hopes of reducing your cat’s hunting behavior.

  • Increase Play: Frequent play can help to redirect your cat’s stalking and hunting instincts and reduce the likelihood of gory surprises. A recent study from the University of Exeter found that just five to ten minutes of daily play cut down on feline hunting by 25%.
  • Make Sure They’re Getting Enough Protein: That same University of Exeter study found that commercial foods with protein derived from meats (as opposed to soy) were successful in reducing hunting by 36%. Scientists hope to conduct further research into the specific micronutrients found in meat to better determine how cat owners can discourage hunting while minimizing their carbon footprint.
  • Switch Up Their Collar: Your cat will have a harder time dropping birds and other animals at your feet if those would-be victims can hear or see them coming. A collar with a bell can help to reduce the number of both birds and mammals killed by your cat. Researchers have also found that colorful collars like the “Birdbesafe” can reduce birds captured by your cat by as much as 42%, though they do not generally stop cats from hunting other animals.

Never attempt to discourage hunting by punishing your cat or seriously limiting their outdoor access. Strict negative reinforcement may have the unintended effect of encouraging destructive behaviors, and keeping an outdoor cat cooped up can dramatically reduce their standard of living.

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