Cat Behavior: Why Do They Play With Prey?

You will notice something about people who dislike cats. They are quick to point out when a cat person is anthropomorphizing but unable to recognize when they themselves are doing it. This is a function of confirmation bias, to name but one cognitive heuristic that clogs our thinking. So, to wonder is a cat is sadistic, is to assign human motivations and feelings to it. Yet, many of us have seen a cat seem to play with a mouse before killing it. It’s as if the cat is delighting in torturing the poor little creature before finally dispatching it. So, are cats sadistic?

All cats, including big cats, will seem, to some extent, to play with their prey. House cats will bat around a mouse, seeming to let it go, corner it, grab it again, knock it up into the air, etc. They do seem to be having fun. And it does seem a cruel torture. But all this behavior has a practical purpose.

Why Do Cats Play with Prey?

Cats do not kill prey with their claws. They catch them and immobilize them with their claws, and the claws are certainly a weapon, but to use them for killing would be inefficient as well as exhausting for the hunter.

Although a cat will grab and hold any part of the prey’s body with its teeth, it’s a bite to the neck which is favored for the kill. In order to bite the neck, the cat must momentarily release the prey. The prey might get away before the cat can bite.

Another problem is that to deliver this killing bite, the cat must get its face up close and personal with the mouth of their prey. Even a mouse about to be killed by a cat will bite. For a cat, a bite by a prey animal is a potential death sentence, as even a little nick from a mouse could become infected, which is big trouble for a cat in the wild.

And, keep in mind that cats evolved to hunt other animals than just mice. Small prey like voles, shrews, and rats will bite. Shrews, in fact, are carnivorous in their own right. And, voles and shrews will turn over onto their backs into a defensive position, so they can deliver a bite to their attacker. Although by not biting their prey right away, the cat risks losing them, as the prey tries to run away, providing the cat is quick enough to catch it again, they become more and more exhausted. The idea is to knock the prey around, release it and re-catch it until it is exhausted and dazed.

It may seem to be an abundance of caution, but a cat has another problem when it comes to biting its prey. Just as a cat can’t see a treat that’s right in front of its face, as they bring their mouth close to the prey, within a whisker’s distance, the animal becomes all but invisible to them. It’s a crucial blind spot, giving the animal a chance to bite or getaway.

Cats also hunt birds, and a bird can escape more easily than a small rodent. They can fly away. They can also peck at the cats face.

Looking Away Like I’m Not Interested

You may have noticed another behavior that adds to the perception that the cat is playing. After thoroughly exhausting a mouse, a cat will sometimes back off and sit, looking away nonchalantly as if it is not paying any attention to the prey. You can’t be blamed for thinking this is all just a game! However, it’s more a fail-safe. Prey can “play dead” or at least play exhausted, and a cat wants to give one last check to make sure it’s time to bite. By looking away and appearing to lose interest, the cat is giving the prey a chance to make a break for it. The prey may just be lying there waiting for its chance, after all. If the prey does run, the cat, using its great sense of motion detection, will react in an instant and once again pin the prey. The whole process will repeat again, play, look away, pounce again, etc. and so on until the prey seems to be thoroughly dazed. Then the cat will give the killing bite.

Do Cats Practice Hunting Without Eating?

Adding to the perception that cats are sadistic, it is often claimed that, in order to hone its hunting skills, a cat with access to live prey will hunt even when it is not hungry, playing with its prey, but never actually killing it and eating it. Or, sometimes, killing it and not eating it.

Whether or not a cat actually kills and eats prey is a complex question that probably has more to do with the individual cat and how much it learned during kittenhood. On one hand, cats are acting out their instincts and hunting behaviors are a crucial part of daily stimulation. It’s how they exercise and use up all that pent-up energy they get while sleeping all the time. On the other hand, not all cats hunt the same amount, even in a simulated way. And domestic cats, more often than not, are observed to hunt without actually eating the prey.

It is important to understand that cats are born hunters. To call this an instinct may be understating the case. They have a need to stalk and chase small prey. Even though you feed your cat plenty of food, she might hunt. So, she doesn’t need hunger to trigger her prey drive. In other words, her instinct to hunt isn’t connected to hunger. No matter how much you feed a cat, she will still hunt. At the same time, if you want a cat to be a better mouser, making her go hungry will not help.

Some get confused by this and suggest that hunting has nothing to do with food! In fact, I read one commenter on a social media site suggesting that cats don’t hunt for food but become scavengers when they are hungry. This makes little sense. A cat’s hunting is all about food. It’s just that they must hunt as often as possible to ensure they have enough food. A cat in the wild might hunt up to ten times a day. And since small cats hunt for small prey, they need plenty meals to make up for the few calories they get. A cat cannot afford to wait until it is hungry to hunt. There was a time when humans survived by hunting and gathering. Do you think we waited until we were hungry to perform this task? No, it occupied most of our time.

Some sources go so far to suggest that a hungry cat is a bad hunter and therefore hunger is completely divorced from hunger. This fanciful notion can be disproven, at least anecdotally, by playing with you cat at two different times, one after it has just eaten, and one while it is waiting for a meal. You will most likely find that a cat does not play as vigorously after it has been fed. In fact, it will more likely want to lie around grooming. On, when your cat is hungry and waiting for its next meal, you will find it plays with its ‘prey’ toys more enthusiastically. Certainly, a cat will be a better hunter if it is well-fed and has plenty of energy but to say that hunting has almost no connection to food is to take a leap past what we know into the land of fancy.

Cats in the wild do indeed eat after killing. They also stash killed prey on their home turf to be eaten later. Your house cat, however, knows how good a bowl of commercial cat food tastes.

Is Your Cat Having Fun?

The truth is when your cat batters prey with its paws and plays the deadly game, it probably is having fun. This kind of behavior is not only instinctual but part of how cats learn to play. In the world of carnivores, play is closely connected to hunting activity. It stands to reason that having a crucial survival skill also be pleasurable would favor survival. Even cats, that rarely if ever kill their prey, like many house cats, will still engage in the playing behavior. The way we use cat toys, especially cats toys on strings, simulates the way cats ‘play’ with their prey. It isn’t sadistic, it’s just instinct and survival. We, humans, do the same thing. How many games of chase did you play as a child?

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