by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Hunting is a natural instinct in cats. Cats will hunt anything that moves – toys, toes, leaves, moths, lizards, birds and more. The action of killing prey, the killing bite, is a more suppressed instinct and is usually learnt from Momcat. This reduced instinct is probably due to the abundance of easy food supplied in bowls by caring owners so most cats never have to kill for their dinner. Kittens born to a feral mother are more likely to inherit a stronger killing instinct than kittens born to a house cat.
Why do cats hunt? The reasons are as individual as the cat himself. The hunting sequence – identify, hunt, kill, eat – activates pleasure centres in the brain. Apart from the satisfaction of the reward, he feels good about the mental and physical energy used.
Hunting is a built-in instinct for all cats, part of their genetic make-up. For some cats, especially those with at least one feral parent, the prey-drive is high, and they have an emotional need to hunt. The challenge is greater than any negative reaction from their owners.
Cats learn from others; if one cat in the household is a hunter others may follow him when they see the results, both from him and their owners! The attitude of owners can contribute to the hunting ‘game’.
Boredom is a contributor towards unwanted behaviour; cats are intelligent and need to exercise their brains and bodies every day. If there are no alternatives, they may take up hunting as a way to have fun while passing the time until you come home.
Nutrition is another factor to consider. Cats need to have protein and other nutrients in their diet in order to be healthy. Occasionally some cats will have a specific need, possibly due to an illness or inherited condition. If these nutrition needs are not met through their daily food, and the opportunity exists, they will hunt to make up the deficit.
Female cats have an instinct to care for their kittens, including feeding and teaching them to hunt. This can be carried over to humans when a cat considers her humans need help in feeding or learning to hunt.
Do tom cats hunt more than queens? In the wild both sexes will hunt for their needs, so the males may need more food as they tend to be bigger; however, females have to feed their kittens and teach them to hunt, which supposedly makes them better hunters. In a domestic environment it rather depends on the personality of the cat and the opportunities available.
Is there an age limit to hunting? Young kittens and cats need to learn the skill of hunting, and how to administer the killing bite; they will be more active but not as successful as an older cat. Mature and senior cats develop strategies for more successful with less effort; even old cats can still be successful hunters.
While it is not possible to stop a cat from hunting, it is possible to minimise the effects. Depending on the reason for the behaviour, there are different options.
The most obvious, but sometimes least practical, option is to separate the cats from their prey. Keep cats indoors, or in enclosed catios, or allow them outdoors only under supervision.
Remove bird feeders to a safe space, and provide safety sheet to catch any fallen seed or food so birds are not tempted to feed off the ground.
Redirect the hunting instinct to their normal diet using puzzle or interactive feeders. Cats have to work out how to ‘hunt’ and ‘catch’ their food; it is a challenge, takes time and delivers a reward. While most puzzle feeders are designed for dry food or special treats there are ones for raw food.
Diet plays a role in all behaviour. Feeding an appropriate approved raw diet for cats containing all the necessary supplements may reduce the need to taste fresh prey.
Cats hunt stealthily, quietly creeping up on their prey. Adding two or more bells with at least one close to a metal name tag on their collar may be effective in giving prey a warning, although this can make cats stealthier hunters. Ensure that all collars have a quick-real ease clip so that cats are not strangled if caught in a tree or bush.
Some cats learn to hunt even with bells on their collars! A clown collar makes it more difficult to drop their heads to see ground-based prey such as lizards, while a cat bib can be used to make it more difficult for them to crawl up onto their prey. These do not impact on their normal walking or affect the ability to sleep, eat or drink.
If practical and appropriate, an in-ground deterrent fence may keep a cat restricted to a safe area.
What time of day does most hunting take place? This may depend on the prey itself but is often in the evening or morning. Restrict access to outdoors at these times.
Our attitude to the hunt, and presentation of the end result, also plays a part. If we show emotion, good or bad, then we are inadvertently encouraging the hunting instinct by giving a reward for the prey. Rather dispose of the prey as quickly as possible without displaying any reaction; either release safely, take to a vet or dispose as necessary.
If all of these fail, accept that your cat will hunt and will bring in prey. Minimise the damage as much as possible and monitor him for parasites, poisons, or disease that he may pick up from the prey, even if it is not eaten.
See also CATS THAT HUNT