by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
All cats have the instinctive ability to hunt; not all cats have the opportunity or the inclination to hunt, domestication has reduced the prey drive and level of hunting skill. Some cats instinctively know how to make the killing bite while others learn from other cats, or through necessity.
Cats are designed to be hunters; lean body, good eyesight and focus, alert mind, and quick digestive system. The hunting sequence stimulates the brain to activate pleasure centres, thereby making the hunt exciting. Being obligate carnivores, cats need the nutrients in meat, organs and bones to be healthy.
There are dangers associated with hunting too; prey animals will defend themselves to avoid being killed. There are different reasons proposed for cats that play with their catch before killing it or letting it go. If the cat is concerned about potentially being hurt by the prey she will play with it to tire it out and make it easier and safer to kill. When the prey is caught it may not be in the right position for the killing bite – one bite that will paralyse or kill outright – so she will try to catch it from a different angle. Cats that are not hungry or do not want to eat the prey may play for fun, until the prey stops moving.
Prey animals may carry diseases, or have ingested or been exposed to poisons that can harm the cat.
Again there are differing thoughts on why cats present us with their trophies. Studies have shown that free-roaming cats with access to more space do not always bring prey home so they tend to kill more than we know about. It may be they want to share their excess food with their family; typically these are female cats, often spayed without having kittens. It is also suggested that they are trying to teach us to kill, or even to ask us to keep the prey for a later meal.
Should your domestic cat be allowed to eat her catch? That depends on the prey and the likelihood of it being poisoned or dangerous. A well-fed domestic cat may only eat a bite or two to experience the reward of the complete hunting cycle. An approved tasty treat can be substituted.
There are measures we can take to reduce the incidents of killing while still allowing some of the fun of the hunt. Play hunting games with your cats every day; at the end of the game reward with a small treat to reward the successful catch. If using a laser pointer always finish the game on a toy that can be ‘caught’, and give a treat.
An appropriate diet, fed in the right quantities and at the right time, will reduce the need to hunt for food.
Cats are most active at dawn and dusk, so keeping them indoors or in a controlled space during these times will reduce the opportunity for hunting. Putting one or two bells on her collar may give the prey a warning, or may teach her to hunt more stealthily. Cat bibs are a relatively new idea to reduce the incidences of bird kills.
Cats have a positive effect on the reduction of rodents and other pests that damage food and merchandise; where there is an over-population of free-roaming cats they do kill birds and other small animals and reptiles. Earlier studies showed that the effect of cats is minimal when compared to that of human habitation, agriculture and deforestation; however there are now some areas where cat predation is a major cause for concern.