The moment that usually sweet kitty squeezes through the cat door with a wiggling mouse clenched between her teeth, you know what’s about to happen. Fluffy’s on yet another hunting rampage, taunting that helpless mouse by batting it around until finally putting it out of its misery. You can’t help but wonder: Why do cats play with their prey before killing?
Cats play with their prey because it tires the rodent out before attempting that fatal neck bite, preventing injury or revenge. Other reasons cats bat their prey around include fulfilling their opportunistic hunting instinct despite not being hungry or practicing their hunting skills to stay sharp.
As gut-wrenching as it is to watch that cuddly (and well-fed) fluff ball torture an innocent rabbit or wren, this is a feline hunting instinct — nothing too sinister. It all comes down to a drive to survive. To learn about why cats play with their prey, read on!
What Type of Prey Do Cats Hunt?
Indoor cats will stalk, pounce, and hunt anything that resembles a squirming wild rodent — toes dancing beneath the covers, a mouse toy ditched beneath the kitchen table, or untied shoelaces swinging from your loafers. But if let loose to fend for themselves, cats will hunt species like:
Though cats appear more intrigued by ‘toying’ with captured prey than eating it, this odd behavior doesn’t signal poor hunting skills. Cats are such skilled hunters that they’ve driven at least 63 species to extinction or ‘threatened’ status worldwide, like Caribbean hutias or the New Zealand native Lyall’s Wren. These fluff balls are solely responsible for killing more than 2.4 billion birds and up to 22.3 billion small mammals every year.
Why Cats Play With Their Prey
Although it can be upsetting to watch, a cat’s mysterious hunting instincts are quite fascinating. This three-step process can be easy to miss. Here’s what happens once Fluffy notices a squirrel scurry across her path or a rabbit nibbling on grass:
- Stalk: A cat in ‘stalk mode’ will crouch low to the ground, glue its eyes to the unsuspecting prey, and patiently wait.
- Run: The ‘run phase’ will start with the cat slowly and silently creeping toward the prey, eventually jetting off in a sprint in the classic game of ‘cat and mouse.’
- Pounce: Once a cat catches up to her prey, she’ll use her front paws and dagger-like teeth to ambush that rabbit or squirrel officially.
Cats will generally hunt for 3-12 hours per day — even if they have a full belly — and may capture up to 10-20 small mammals and birds daily. But this doesn’t explain the taunting, playing, and batting around before delivering that final, fatal bite in one swoop.
If your cat is playing with its prey, here are the three likely explanations:
To Tire It Out
Wild cats perfect their hardwired hunting instincts before exiting kittenhood, leaving for their first solo hunt as early as 8-16 weeks old. These adorable fluff balls learn quite early that normally docile rodents become unbelievably feisty when cornered by a predator (a cat, in this instance). Unskilled hunters may take a sharp beak to the eye or sunken-in rat teeth to those thin perky ears.
By swatting the prey around, allowing it to scurry away briefly, and pouncing again, Fluffy is tiring that critter out intentionally. A tired rodent or bird is less likely to fight back or harm a hungry kitty. When the prey finally succumbs to the threat, a cat can hold it in the perfect position to deliver that final, neck-snapping bite.
They’re Not Hungry
Some 70% of domestic cats live strictly indoors, with another 25% splitting time between the Great Outdoors and an air-conditioned home. These kitties will return home for a stomach-filling dinner and are generally well-fed and a healthy weight. But the lack of hunger doesn’t phase out the instincts driving cats to hunt.
When a non-hungry cat pounces on prey, they may very well be craving entertainment (killing for sport, in this case). This extended hunting process releases an endorphin rush in a cat’s brain that makes her feel wildly energetic and excited. This painful catching, releasing, and batting the prey can be a stuffed cat’s daily all-natural play session!
If not to soothe a rumbling tummy, why do domestic cats insist on killing prey? The video below describes why and how cats hunt:
Honing Their Hunting Skills
A mother cat will teach her litter the hunting basics as early as a few weeks old before allowing them their first solo hunts. Maternal instincts send a mother cat off on a hunt, only to return several minutes (or hours) later with a tweeting bird lodged between her jaw. The queen will then bite the bird’s neck as her curious kittens look on, showing them how to end a successful hunt.
Though this first hunting experience sticks with cats for a lifetime, they’re never truly comfortable with their hunting instincts, especially if they’re indoor-only cats. A cat who plays with its prey before snapping its spinal cord might be ‘practicing’ its hunting skills. This hunting-savvy cat may also be returning home with a bird in tow and swat it around to teach you how to hunt and kill prey — just as her mom taught her!
Other Weird Cat Hunting Behaviors
The whole ‘batting prey around’ thing can feel sickening if you’re an empath, but it’s not the only odd feline hunting behavior that you’ve noticed. Watch Fluffy strategically ambush prey, and you might see that she:
Brings Dead Animals Home
There’s nothing more disturbing than waking up to a dead bird on your pillow or Fluffy swatting at a still-alive mouse in the kitchen. When cats bring dead animals home, they see these slithering and fluttering critters as ‘gifts.’ These gifts can be your kitty returning the favor (‘you feed me, I’ll feed you’) or a teaching lesson (‘let me teach you how to kill this rabbit.’
A chattering cat is one of the more bizarre sounds that felines make, looking (and sounding) similar to your teeth clattering on a shivering cold day. But if you notice your cat chattering while hunting, it’s no accident. Your cat might be mimicking the prey’s calls to lure them into coming near. You’ll typically hear this oddly quiet noise as Fluffy watches the birds on the patio.
Hunts Right After Eating
Well-fed cats may hunt for the classic ‘thrill of the chase,’ leaving a squirrel for dead but never feasting on it. But why do cats hunt after munching on kibble at home? As bland as that dry food looks and smells, cats genuinely prefer variety in their diets. Fluffy’s post-lunch hunts are her attempt at tasting some new cuisine to satisfy her palate (like squirrel meat after chicken pate).
You can yank the cat from the hunting arena (the Great Outdoors), but you can’t steal the hunting instincts from a cat. If you’re tired of watching those harmless rodents suffer at Fluffy’s hands (or paws), limit her prey drive by:
- Investing in realistic rodent-shaped (or feather-adorned) toys
- Playing with your cat for at least 30 minutes per day
- Dragging strings or want toys in your cat’s path to encourage the stalk/pounce combo
- Keeping her strictly indoors
- Not (accidentally) rewarding her with treats when she waltzes in with prey
And, don’t punish your kitty for following her genetic instincts!
- American Bird Conservancy: Cats and Birds: A Bad Combination
- International Cat Care: Understanding the hunting behaviour of pet cats: an introduction
- Animals: Body Size and Bite Force of Stray and Feral Cats—Are Bigger or Older Cats Taking the Largest or More Difficult-to-Handle Prey?
- Live Science: Why Do Cats Bring Home Dead Animals?
- Positively: Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats