Whaaaat? Cats play with their prey?
Like most cat guardians, if you’ve ever watched your cat catch a mouse, bird, lizard, gecko, or even a soft toy, you’ll notice that rarely is it a swift kill.
Instead, the cat seems to enjoy playing with his (still alive) food for a while before finally dispatching it!
I’ve lost count of the number of unfortunate geckos I’ve seen still stumbling around while my cats have just sat there watching the poor thing!
It makes you wonder…
Are cats just sadists?
A quick Google search will uncover many different possible reasons, like:
It turns out, some of these reasons aren’t too far off the mark!
To get some answers, let’s turn our attention to a study performed in 1979 at the University of North Carolina: Predation and Predatory Play Behaviour of Domestic Cats.
The study was done in 2 parts (or ‘experiments’).
Experiment 1 took 8 cats, and simply looked at the range of behaviours the cats produced when presented with live prey (mice and chicks). It also looked at the probability of a kill depending on whether the cat was hungry or already fed. This created a template or baseline for the second experiment.
Experiment 2 looked at 18 cats, and tested both hunger levels and ‘fear’ levels and how they impacted hunting behaviour. Fear levels were managed by using different sized prey. For instance, baby mice assumably induced very little ‘fear’, adult mice some ‘fear’, and adult rats more ‘fear’ (given that rats were much larger and could potentially cause injury).
Some interesting results were seen:
It was good data, with pretty consistent results. Though as with any experiment, in an attempt to control the variables, there were a number of constraints which could have affected the outcomes slightly. A couple that I noticed were:
Nevertheless, this is the data we have to go on!
So, what do the results actually tell us about why cats play with their prey before killing it?
Just remember, with experiments like these, the results are only ever inferred or interpreted. No-one (that I know of) has ever been able to ask a cat why they play with their prey! This means we can only look at the results and make some assumptions.
Firstly, we do know that cats are more likely to kill quicker if they are hungry, and the prey is small. This makes sense. Catch and eat – it serves an immediate purpose.
We now know that the larger the prey, the longer they ‘play’ with it!
What does this tell us?
Well, it’s been suggested that this is a safety mechanism employed by the cats to ‘wear down’ their prey before enacting the kill-bite or rabbit kick. A rat, full of energy, backed into a corner is far more dangerous to a cat than one who has been batted and thrown around a several times, with a few injuries and depleted energy. A completely worn out and injured rat is far safer to kill. That’s the theory anyway.
But, according to the experiments, we also know that cats will hunt and kill even if they aren’t hungry (albeit playing for longer, and not killing as often).
What does this tell us?
Do they simply enjoy seeing other animals in pain? Do they kill for sport?
It’s impossible to truly tell (unless again of course, you can ask them).
But some experts seem to think that it’s simply instinct rather than (a sadist) choice. In a natural environment, cats are always unsure of their next meal so perhaps they are likely to take the opportunity if it presents itself, even if they are not hungry yet.
Other experts seem to think it’s less about feeding opportunity, and more about mental and physical stimulation. It’s not that they enjoy seeing other animals in pain, but moreso that they just really, really, really enjoy the hunt (which is totally possible considering almost every aspect of their body and senses are geared towards this one activity)! So, perhaps the ‘killing for sport (or practice)’ idea isn’t too far off.
Perhaps it’s somewhere in between.
As I like to say, ‘one study doesn’t necessarily make a truth’. But it’s the best we’ve got at this point. And it does seem to fit with what I see.
In the end, we need to remember that our fluffy little house cats who share our beds and curl up in our laps harbour a ruthless killing machine under that cute and cuddly exterior. It’s just how it is. To help keep those mental and physical stimulation requirements in check, keep up the proper daily play!
I hope that was as interesting for you as it was for me!
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!