How to stop a cat from hunting
13th April, 2022
It’s a familiar scene – you come downstairs in the morning to find your feisty feline has tracked down and killed a bird or a mouse and it’s now lying on your kitchen floor.
What a lovely gift!
As cat owners we shouldn’t be surprised at this behaviour. The hunting instinct is very prevalent among cats. Some animals may be more skilled hunters than others, but the instinct to chase down and kill prey will be present in most domestic felines.
But why do cats feel the need to hunt? Why do they so often present us with the fruits of their labours? And why do they need to stalk and kill their prey when they’re so well fed at home?
Read on as we delve into the mechanics of cat hunting behaviour. In essence, although the urge to hunt is fairly hardwired into your cat, there may be ways and means of diverting that energy into less destructive ends. Essentially, it's all about keeping your cat happy and stimulated. And that, along with arranging some insurance for your pets to help with any illnesses and injuries, is part of what makes a responsible cat owner.
Cats and hunting: a short history
Before they became the much-loved and well-fed household pets they are today, cats led a very different lifestyle. Before their widespread domestication, cats had to get out there and hunt for their daily meal, just like other creatures in the wild – their own 'big cat' cousins, to give just a few examples.
In the wild, cats found themselves competing with each other for prey. This meant that only the most skilled hunters managed to catch enough food to survive, to remain healthy, and to reproduce. Result: the hunting instinct grew stronger with each passing generation, with only the best hunters surviving and reproducing. Effectively, your cute and cuddly domestic cat can trace their descendants back to some highly skilled hunting ancestors.
Obviously, that imperative to hunt for survival has now disappeared from most cats' lives. A typical modern kitty will lead a far more comfortable life. This will include finding all the nutrition they need in a nice bowl in the kitchen, rather than lurking out there in the undergrowth.
Hunting: instinct, not hunger
The necessity may no longer be there but, for your cat and millions of other pampered pets like them, the instinct is still strong. The presence of as much food and water as they need may mean that cats no longer need to go and catch that little house mouse or blue tit to survive. However, their instinct will still tell them to go off in hot pursuit. In fact, the hunting instinct is still so strong that, on hearing the small feet of a little creature or the flapping wings of a small garden bird, your cat won’t be able to help itself. That ancestral imperative to hunt will kick in and they'll be off into the undergrowth before you can say, “More Whiskas, Charlie?”
The fact that, most of the time, the prey remains uneaten should tell you that it's the process of hunting that the cat feels irresistibly drawn to, rather than the potential meal at the end of it. What's more, on most occasions cats won't set off with the specific purpose of hunting. Instead, they are 'opportunistic' hunters, going after whatever crosses their path.
So how do cats learn to hunt? As with so many skills right across the animal kingdom, hunting is often learned from the mother and through play with siblings. Then, as they grow older, a cat will feel the need to go and test out their freshly learned hunting skills in the outside world. This is when you can expect to start receiving regular 'presents' on your doormat – mice and small birds but also, on occasions, larger creatures such as blackbirds, starlings and even rabbits.
Cats that aren't allowed outdoors may find a way to expend their hunting energies through playing with their toys. Owners of indoor cats may be all too familiar with the shredded-up cat toy, or even the children's soft toy that gets mercilessly pawed and gnawed. We've got some more advice on how to keep indoor cats happy and occupied, a little further down this article.
How do cats hunt?
There seem to be three major techniques used by cats in hunting. You may have observed your cat displaying one or more of these behaviours:
1. The 'stalk and pounce'
A classic cat hunting technique. The cat will locate its prey and then stalk slowly and silently towards it, crouching low to the ground. Subterfuge is key here, so the cat may stop at intervals as they approach, making sure that they can't be seen or heard. Then, as soon as they get close enough, they'll lower their rear legs into a 'pounce' pose – and then leap and grab their unfortunate prey.
Yes, certain cats seem more predisposed to hunt for fish – in a neighbourhood pond or stream, for example – than to stalk prey across land. You may have seen your cat using one paw to quickly dart into the water and scoop out a fish. What's more, some cat breeds – such as Bengals, Abyssinians and Main Coons – are quite at home in water, and may actually wade into the water to grab their prey. This isn't the norm, though, as most cats are generally afraid of the wet stuff, as you may know if you have ever tried bathing your pet. Incidentally, we discuss the complex question of cats and baths in a little more detail in this article.
This hunting behaviour closely resembles the 'stalk and pounce' above. The difference is that, rather than silently stalking towards the prey, an ambushing cat will simply lie in wait in some well-hidden spot, before performing the killer pounce when the opportunity presents itself.
Are there any other reasons for cats to hunt?
Besides that ancestral imperative, two major reasons are put forward for why cats love to get out into the bushes and hunt and kill prey:
Because they're hungry
You might assume that your cat is out on the lookout for mice and small birds to supplement their diet, as they are not getting quite enough at home. Could a simple empty stomach be the reason behind their compulsive stalking of prey? In fact, hunger on its own is unlikely to be the cause of a cat's frequent hunting escapades.
The cat welfare charity International Cat Care explains that the amount of hunting that modern cats typically do is unlikely to contribute much towards their nutritional needs. The charity explains that, if a typical cat relied on its own hunting skills for its daily intake, it would need to be catching between 10 and 20 creatures a day.
Thankfully, most cat owners will only see one or perhaps two kills brought in each day if that. Managing 10 to 20 of these on a daily basis would mean a pretty intensive hunting regime for a typical cat – especially when we take into account the fact that each hunting mission typically has a success rate of less than one in two.
In fact, instead of hunting specifically for food, today's domestic cats have evolved to hunt whenever they have the opportunity. Hunger, in all probability, has relatively little to do with this instinct.
They're bringing you a 'gift'
Is that dead mouse or sparrow that turns up on your doorstep meant to be some sort of present from your cat? A token, in furry or winged form, of their appreciation for all you do for them?
Well, yes, it could be some form of offering from your cat to you. After all, cats' ancestors provided for their young by bringing them food. The same goes for the wild cousins of the domestic cat today. On the other hand, most household cats today are neutered and won't have young to provide for – so it is possible that they are simply transferring these nurturing instincts to us, their owners.
Of course, they may bring the prey into the home to eat later. And, although it may not feel like it when you're presented with another small dead creature, this is quite a positive signal from your cat. It shows that they feel sufficiently safe, secure and happy in your home to entrust a little food parcel to you, until they come back to it later.
Can you stop your cat from hunting?
It can be quite distressing to see all these little corpses brought to your door. You may feel like punishing your cat for their behaviour – or even attempting to train this killer instinct out of them. But you should tread very carefully here.
First of all, we would never recommend punishing a cat for hunting. They are just obeying their natural instincts and disciplining them will simply make them confused and potentially anxious, without necessarily stopping the behaviour.
However, if you are getting fed up, or upset, with the constant procession of dead creatures into your home, there are a few steps that you can take to try and lessen or redirect your cat's hunting drive.
1. Ensure they're getting enough food
As we said, hunger is often not the root cause of these frequent hunting expeditions, so focusing on their food may not have the required result of bringing down their hunting instinct. However, ensuring that your cat has a balanced, nutritious diet may, in some instances, calm their urge to supplement their food intake through hunting. And in any case, making sure your cat is getting the nourishment they need is something you'll want to be doing as a responsible cat owner.
Giving them the correct nutrition is right up there with arranging suitable insurance for your pet, having vaccinations and attending regular vet visits, as one of your essential responsibilities as a good cat owner.
It’s also possible that smaller meals, more often throughout the day, may be a more effective dampener on the hunting instinct, than one or two large feeds a day.
2. Make sure they wear a collar and a bell
A collar with a bell can help alert the potential prey to the threat nearby and give them enough time to escape. One recent study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found that cats that wore a collar with a bell were typically catching 41 per cent fewer birds and 34 per cent fewer mammals, than cats who hunted without a bell.
We'd recommend a 'break-away' collar, by the way: this form of collar has a quick-release buckle which will unfasten instantly in the event of your cat snagging it on a branch or other obstacle. This type of collar lessens the chance of your cat suffering an injury, strangulation or even death while out on the prowl. Note that the collar should be well fitted, firm but not too tight. You should manage to get two fingers comfortably between the collar and your cat's neck.
While we're on the subject, have a read of our how-to guide – How to choose the right cat collar.
3. Be sensitive to nature's rhythms
If you welcome birds in your garden but worry about your cat preying on them, you can make changes to your environment to maximise their chances of survival.
For example, the RSPB recommends placing any bird feeders at least two metres away from dense vegetation. That is still close enough for the birds to dive into the hedge or bush when they need to.
Just as importantly, it means that cats can't jump, in just one leap, from their bushy hiding place to the feeder – and any animals using it. Instead, they will have to take a couple of jumps to get there – allowing precious time for the birds to fly away.
Similarly, place any nesting boxes away from your cat's favourite ambush spots: you don't want adult birds to be prevented from returning to their young ones with vital food.
Feeding time for your cat can also play a role here. It turns out that birds and small mammals are at their most busy and active in our gardens at two particular times: the hour just after sunrise, and another hour just before sunset. It follows that these are good times to try to keep kitty out of the garden. This would be an ideal time, for example, to feed them indoors or to instigate some bonding, indoor play.
Similarly, the hours immediately after a spell of bad weather are another time when birds and mammals will come out to feed – this would be another good time to keep your cat away from the natural world for a while.
4. Channel those hunting instincts into play instead
You may well find it difficult to suppress your cat's natural appetite to hunt – and, as we discussed earlier on in this article, punishment is definitely not the answer. However, you may find that you are able to redirect that hunting energy into frequent play sessions. Play provides some much-needed mental stimulus for your cat, and should help to satisfy the desire to get out there and hunt.
Any toy that you can move around in front of your cat will work: the pursuit will keep them interested and provide them with the stimulus that they need. A feather teaser is a great example here – but there are plenty of cat toys on the market that will do the job.
I don't want my cat to hunt at all. Can I keep them indoors?
You may decide that you don't want to run the risk of your cat killing and bringing home all sorts of cute little creatures, and that it's far better for them to have an indoor existence.
Indeed, owners sometimes have other reasons for keeping their cats indoors, too. For example, the number of cats killed in road accidents makes a fairly compelling case for keeping your cat in the house, and away from the dangers of busy roads.
Collisions with moving cars are often fatal for cats – and even those that are not may result in serious injuries. Treatment for these will be expensive, although your cat insurance should help cover the cost of any emergency treatment your cat may need.
In theory, it is possible for cats to live an indoor-only life, although some animal welfare organisations such as Blue Cross do not generally recommend keeping cats as indoor pets. The reason for this is that depriving cats of access to the outside world, and not letting them do the things they naturally want to do out there – such as hunting – can make them unhappy. They may also develop behavioural problems, too. Boredom can make pets bad-tempered and sometimes destructive, as we discussed elsewhere on the site.
Some types of cats may be best kept indoors, of course: these can include elderly animals, as well as those with health problems. The RSPCA website has some good advice on keeping your indoor cat happy and stimulated.
If you do go down the indoor route, be aware that your cat will want to do as much exploring, scratching, and hunting as their more outdoor compatriots. If they can only satisfy these urges inside your home, your furniture may come off worse in the long run!
However, you can use toys and games to make sure that your cat can do all of the hunting, stalking, hiding, pouncing and catching that they need. All of these activities provide excellent mental stimulus for cats, and should also keep their bodies in good shape – resulting, possibly, in fewer visits to the vet and fewer claims upon your pet insurance.
Protect your cat with specialist pet insurance
If your cat has been bringing you unwanted trophies from the garden and beyond, you've probably found yourself with a few questions. We hope this article has helped answer the most common ones!
Indeed, answering your questions about your pet's health and happiness is just one of the services we provide as part of our dog, cat, and pet insurance. Our 24-Hour Vet Helpline is open for our customers to call at any time with their pet health queries.
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