Cat Hunting Behavior: Why Does My Cat Hunt?

22 November 2021

Beneath your cat’s cute and cuddly exterior lurks a skilled and powerful hunter. Let’s explore cat hunting behavior to understand why your cat likes to hunt for prey and deliver the catch to your doorstep!

brown-white cat on a tree

It’s hard to believe that the fluffy ball of fur curled up on your lap is also a mighty predator, equipped with lighting reflexes and capable of pinpoint strikes. All cats are natural hunters and rely on built-in instincts to capture and kill prey. Learn all about cat hunting behavior, and how to tame it in this post. Plus, discover the GPS cat tracker that can help you keep tabs on your little hunter at all times.

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Why do cats hunt?

All cats, wild and domestic, belong to the animal group known as felines. Cats are born with all the equipment they need for hunting: sharp teeth, lightning-fast reflexes, excellent nighttime vision, superior hearing, and speed, power, or cooperative hunting strategies, depending on the species.

Wild cats hunt other animals so they can eat the meat and feed themselves and their young. Most wild cats are solitary hunters.

Over many centuries, small species of wild cats developed relationships with humans. The cats were kept by people to kill mice and other pests that ate farmers’ stored grain. These domesticated kitties were not pets – they had to find their own food every day. These expert hunters are your cat’s direct ancestors!

Hunting behavior is hard-wired. Domestic cats that live outdoors will act on their hunting instincts by capturing mice, voles, birds, or even rabbits. Indoor cats employ hunting techniques in their everyday life through play.

Feline hunting strategies and techniques 

Picture a leopardess crouched on the African savannah. Every muscle is tensed, and she is laser-focused on an antelope grazing nearby. With a wriggle of her hindquarters, the leopard springs forward. After a brief high-speed chase, she brings down her prey with a powerful swat of her front paw and delivers a killing bite to the antelope’s throat. 

Your cat is a scaled-down version of that African leopard. Their prey is not a large antelope, obviously, but something more appropriately sized like a songbird or mouse. But your pet cat’s hunting technique is very similar to that of a lion, leopard, bobcat, or mountain lion. 

Many felines use the “stalk and pounce” technique to hunt their prey. These cats locate their prey, then crouch low to the ground and slowly creep toward their prey. When the cat is within striking distance, they’ll spring forward onto the prey. Other cats prefer to ambush their prey. They’ll hide, wait patiently for the right moment, and leap onto their prey.

brown cat stalking prey outside on grass

In both cases, the prey is killed with a bite to the throat. The cat’s sharp canine teeth pierce the spinal cord and the powerful jaw crushes the windpipe. 

Why does my cat hunt if they are well-fed?

Domestic cats have not been selectively bred as much as dogs have. Therefore, they retain their ancestral hard-wired hunting behavior. Hunting comes as naturally to a cat as eating and sleeping

The urge to hunt is not tied to hunger. In the wild, cats hunt all the time, even if they are not hungry, because they never know when their next meal will come. If a cat waited until they were desperately hungry to hunt, they might be too weak to capture prey. 

Your little furball may not need wild prey for survival, but their hunting instincts are powerful. Therefore, your cat may hunt even if you provide easy access to nutritious food.

Why does my cat bring animals or birds as a gift?

Does your kitty drop “gifts” of dead mice on the doorstep? (Or worse, a mouse that is still alive!) This may be a sign that your cat considers you a part of their family. They are sharing the bounty of their hunt, just as their mother may have done with them when they were kittens. 

Indoor cats hunt, too, but their prey is toy mice or balls, which your cat may deliver to you as a gift, even though the toys can’t be eaten.  

Why do cats play with their prey?

When a cat bats around its prey after the initial pounce, it may seem like they want to “play” with their catch. But in reality, the cat is tiring out the animal until it’s safe to go in for the killing bite. 

Mice and rats have sharp incisor teeth that can bite and injure your cat. Birds’ beaks are pointy and can cause damage, too. By wearing down their prey until it is exhausted, the cat has a better chance of avoiding injury. Only when the prey is subdued will the cat go in for the killing bite and sever the spinal cord. 

Cats may toss their prey into the air, which may appear playful. But this technique may cause the prey to fall to the ground forcefully, and its bones may break. At the very least, the prey will be stunned, giving the cat an opportunity to deliver the killing bite.  

Another reason that cats may play with their prey is that they have little experience with hunting. Young cats refine their hunting behavior by watching their mother hunt and going with her on practice hunts. A cat that was removed from its mother at a young age may not have had a chance to perfect their hunting strategies (through actual hunting or through play). An indoor cat who only goes outdoors occasionally may not be skilled enough to kill their prey, but the cat may still toy with the prey by poking at it with their paws. 

cat walking through grass looking straight ahead hunting

How do I spot cat hunting behaviors?

Even when they are not actively hunting, both indoor and outdoor cats will demonstrate their feline prey drive. Young cats, especially, will hone their hunting skills by pouncing on anything that moves – including their own tail or your shoelaces! 

Chasing, stalking, pouncing, and swatting are all employed by cats when hunting. You can elicit these behaviors while playing with your cat. Here are some ideas:

  • Paper bag: Open a large paper bag on the floor. Pretend you are a mouse and scratch your fingers along the back of the bag. Watch your cat zero in on the scratching sound, wiggle their hindquarters, and pounce into the bag. Take care that your fingers don’t receive the killing bite!
  • Wand or fishing pole: Tie a ribbon or string to the end of the pole or wand. Stand around the corner of a wall where your cat can’t see you. Toss the line around the corner toward your cat. Let it sit for a minute, then pull the line just an inch or two toward you. Kitty will become very interested and crouch low, preparing to stalk the “prey.” Pull the line again, just a few inches. Prepare for attack!
  • Disappearing string: Lay a string on the floor and cover most of it with a small rug, allowing a few inches to be exposed near your cat. Pull the string slowly, so it “disappears” under the rug. Watch kitty go wild looking for the hidden string!

What are the health risks for cats that hunt?

Cats are born hunters, but allowing your cat to capture prey outdoors exposes them to risks. Not only can your cat be injured by a rodent’s sharp teeth during a capture, they can also become ill by eating their wild prey.

Many wild animals, including the mice, rats, and songbirds that your cat may capture, have intestinal parasites such as roundworms. These parasites can cause diarrhea and vomiting and can be passed on to other pets or humans. 

Toxoplasmosis is a common parasite in outdoor cats. They may ingest the cysts (eggs) of this parasite by eating infected mice or rats, or by coming into contact with infected feces or soil. The toxoplasmosis parasite completes its life cycle in cats. 

Cats infected with toxoplasmosis may never show any symptoms, but they can pass the parasite on to humans who handle their cat litter and accidentally ingest the microscopic cysts. Pregnant women can suffer serious complications if they become infected with toxoplasmosis parasites. 

Other diseases like the plague, leptospirosis, and hantavirus are transmitted by rodents, either to cats or directly to humans if the rodent is brought into the home by your cat. 

To be safe, wear disposable gloves when handling any prey that your cat brings home, and dispose of the dead animal safely. If possible, prevent your cat from eating the prey. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning your cat’s litter box.

Be sure to have regular fecal testing done on your outdoor cat to detect any intestinal parasites. Your veterinarian can recommend treatment. Consider flea and tick prevention measures as well, if your cat spends any time outdoors. 

How can I stop my cat from hunting?

Cats hunting and bringing home prey can be unpleasant for you, and it’s also becoming a subject of increasing concern; studies are being done on just how exactly domestic cats impact local wildlife1. To stop your cat from hunting, we recommend the following:

One sure-fire way to stop your cat from hunting is to keep them indoors. If this is not possible, consider creating a safe outdoor space for your cat, such as a catio. These outdoor enclosures will enrich your cat’s life while keeping them safe from the hazards of outdoor living.

If you prefer to allow your cat to roam outdoors, here are a few ideas to reduce their desire to hunt, or minimize their opportunities to capture prey.

A GPS cat tracker from Tractive can help you keep a closer eye on your furry friend if they roam outside. After all, cat hunting behavior is one of the reasons why cats run away.

woman holding cat wearing gps cat tracker outdoors

Before Tractive I was having a hard time finding my cats every evening to get them indoors. But thanks to tractive, I can now easily find them even if they are busy hunting and ignoring my calls. Also thanks to the sound function I can call them even when they are too far away to hear my voice. Because they’ve learnt to come home when I turn the sound on on their gps tracker! Tractive is probably the best thing I ever got my cats!

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Here are some more tips for curbing your cat’s hunting habit:

Redirect cat hunting behavior through play

Keep your cat engaged with several short but intense play sessions throughout the day. Cats are especially active at dawn and dusk, so plan your playtime to coincide with these busy periods. Use these sessions to train your cat to perform simple behaviors – your cat will enjoy the mental and physical stimulation, as well as the special bonding time with you. 

Make your outdoor cat noisy and colorful

Simply attaching a bell to your cat’s collar may prevent them from launching a sneak attack on wildlife. Rats, mice, and birds will hear the tinkling of the bell as your cat approaches, and scurry away. 

Birds have excellent color vision, so a brightly colored collar or harness on your cat may increase the odds that your cat will be seen by a bird before it’s too late. 

Whether you decide to use a belled or colorful collar, choose a collar with a quick-release or breakaway closure. This protects your cat if the collar or bell gets snagged on a fence or branch. Learn more about how to collar train a cat.

Choose toys that resemble natural prey

Toy mice might be a good target for your cat’s natural prey drive. By engaging in active play with your kitty, you’ll provide them with an outlet for their predatory behavior and use up excess energy that might be used for hunting.

Make feeding time interesting and nutritious

Choose cat food that has a high meat content to more closely mimic your cat’s natural prey. Offer small meals frequently throughout the day to more closely align with your kitty’s natural hunting patterns. Try hiding food in different areas of your home to encourage your cat to “hunt” for meals. Puzzle feeders can also challenge your cat as they work on getting their food out of the feeder.

Keep cats inside at high prey activity times

Many prey species are active at dawn and dusk. To minimize your cat’s chances of encountering these creatures, keep them inside when prey activity is high. You’ll keep your cat safer and reduce hunting opportunities. 

It’s true that you can take the cat out of the hunt, but you can’t take the hunt out of the cat! By understanding cat hunting behavior, you can keep your cat healthy and safe while respecting their inborn hunting instincts. 

Did you like this post? Learn more about the prey drive in dogs.

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