All cats are natural hunters and rely on built-in instincts to capture and kill prey. But, you know, we get it. It’s pretty 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. So in this post, we’re going to cover cat hunting behavior – and how to tame it. (Like, for example, with a cat GPS tracker that can help you keep tabs on your little hunter when they’re out chasing prey – and might wander off too far.)

Why do cats hunt?

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. In fact, both domestic and wild cats belong to the same animal group: felines.

And in many ways, they’re not too different. To begin with, wild cats hunt other animals so they can eat the meat and feed themselves and their young. Most wild cats are solitary hunters.

A lion cub sitting on a tree branch in the savannah

Over many centuries, small species of wild cats developed relationships with humans. (Especially the ancient Egyptians.) These cats were kept by people to kill mice and other pests that ate farmers’ stored grain. At the same time, these semi-domesticated cats weren’t pets! They still had to find their own food every day.

It’s these expert hunters (and food finders) who are actually your cat’s direct ancestors.

Hunting behavior is hard-wired into your cat’s DNA. 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. And this hunting instinct is actually one of the reasons your cat might run away.

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Cat hunting behavior: Stalking & pouncing

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.

A leopard hunting in the wild

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. Which is one of the reasons you might find them scratching at your windows or meowing excessively for some outdoor time.

A cat sitting by a window

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’s 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.

Because, in general, your cat actually sees you as a bigger, clumsier cat! So if you’re finding your feline friend bringing you their “gifts”, it’s actually their way of “teaching” you how to hunt.

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. Letting them outdoors for some supervised playtime can help them develop their hunting instincts better.

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.

And when you think about the animals your cat might usually prey on, this makes a lot of sense. For example:

  • Mice and rats have sharp incisor teeth that can bite and injure your cat.
  • Birds’ beaks are pointy and can cause damage, too.

But by wearing down their prey until it is exhausted, your 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. 

cat walking through grass looking straight ahead hunting

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). These cats might be more likely to develop separation anxiety.
  • 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.

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!
Two cats pouncing on a string toy
  • 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.
A pregnant woman petting a cat indoors

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:

Keep your cat indoors

One sure-fire way to stop your cat from hunting is to keep them indoors. Make sure they have an enriched home environment where they can redirect their hunting behaviors. (Like scratching toys, cat-friendly indoor houseplants, and plenty of time with you.)

A white cat sitting indoors besides flowers and a wicker basket

However, even for indoor cats, supervised time outdoors can come with a whole bunch of benefits. Besides the exercise, they’ll also enjoy the natural sunlight and the sensory stimulation from nature. Keeping your cat indoors for too long can actually make them bored, stressed, or even anxious.

Create a safe outdoor space for your cat

If your cat needs their outdoor time, try and invest in an outdoor space for your cat, like a catio. These outdoor enclosures will enrich your cat’s life while keeping them safe from the hazards of outdoor living. (Which include pests, pesticides, people, predators – and more.) Just watch out for plants that are poisonous for cats.

Follow your cat’s movements in real-time with a GPS tracker

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!”

Plus, in the winter months, snow and cold weather can even mess with your cat’s sense of smell. Making it difficult for them to sniff their way back home to you. So if your cat has scampered off to chase some prey outdoors, your Tractive GPS can help you follow their every step until they’re back safe in your arms.

Cattery owner and trainer, Clair Chesterman

“Tractive is the #1 cat GPS tracker in the industry. And it’s the highest quality cat tracker you can find. I was able to set the safe zone as my house area and once my cat gets outside I get an alert right away. In fact, it probably saved my cat’s life that time she chased a bird and got lost. She was scared and I was able to find her with the help of the GPS tracker. Tractive’s chip frequently calculates your cat’s location and is updated on the map every 2-3 seconds. Furthermore, the LED will help you guard your furry friend at night.”

– Clair Chesterman, Owner of CFA and CCA-registered cattery and fostering company, FluffyMeowPaws3

Track Your Cat With Tractive GPS

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.

A cat hunting outdoors wearing a collar and bell

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. 

A cat sitting by a window at dusk

Stay on top of your cat’s hunting behavior & keep them safe – for good

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.

  • Create an enriching indoor environment for your cat. Redirect their hunting behavior through play, interactive toys that resemble prey (like toy mice), or food dispensers that make your cat have to work for their meals.
  • Create a safe outdoor space for your cat. Watch out for what’s in their outside environment, including plants that are poisonous to them.
  • Consider attaching a bell to your cat’s collar. This will make them a less effective predator overall – while also keeping your house free of dead “prey” animals.

Chasing prey is one of the key reasons cats tend to run away. (And stay away.) Which is why we’d recommend following your cat’s movements with a dedicated cat GPS tracker. With your very own Tractive GPS, you can track your cat in real-time across an unlimited range – no matter how far they’ve run off on the hunt.

Track Your Cat With Tractive GPS

Your cat most likely has a few favorite hunting spots around the neighborhood. Wondering which ones they might be? Here’s how you can set up Tractive’s Location History – which helps you track your cat even in areas with zero network or cell coverage:

Did you like this post? Here’s one that covers prey drive in dogs – in case you’ve got one with a tendency to bolt at the slightest sound or smell. And if you’ve got a friend or family member whose cat has been dropping them some “gifts”, share this article with them and help them learn something new!