Why do cats play with their prey?

Mádi-Krezinger Cintia

2024. February 24 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

Has your outdoor cat dragged and dropped an animal into the house and is playing with it in the middle of the living room? Or is it throwing its favourite plush mouse around? It is not for fun, there is a serious reason.


There are many things we love about cats, and one of our favourite things is undoubtedly their playfulness. However gloomy your mood, the sight of a kitten playing with its toys or a cat running around during an evening zoomie is an instant cure for any ailment. Playing is a fun and important way for the animal to connect with the the owner but it also has an essential survival function when it comes to playing with the prey.

Ancient hunting instinct

Catching prey has always been a vital skill for wild cats. Although today’s domestic cats don’t need to hunt for survival, this ancient instinct is still very much present in the behaviour of even the laziest of pets.

Kittens are particularly playful, as this is how they learn the ins and outs of prey capture from their mothers. As owners, it is up to us, people, to teach this. Despite the fact that we offer them dinner on a plate, in the course of playing together we in fact teach kittens how to hunt.

But why do cats playi with their prey?

When your pet is cruising around the house with a soft toy in its mouth or slapping it across the carpet, you don’t usually think about why it’s doing it. We see it as a game, but in fact we are observing a very serious phenomenon. Imagine the same situation with a rodent or a bird caught in the garden, for example. Already the scene is not very nice and entertaining!

In cats, however, this is the activation of an ancient hunting instinct and survival mechanism. It does not slap its unfortunate prey out of malice or cruelty; it ensures its survival. Even if they don’t really need to do this as a pet.

Security check

One of the reasons cats play with prey is to keep themselves safe. This way they can assess whether the prey has any diseases that could be dangerous for them. A healthy animal will be agile and try to escape, but a sick or poisoned rodent will be sluggish and tired. That’s why a cat may simply leave a prey that has been killed and is already dead: it doesn’t want to risk eating problematic meat.

Prey fatigue may also be behind the playfulness. The more the prey tires, the less chance it will have of attacking the cat back, possibly even injuring it. Research has shown that cats will play with larger prey for longer – probably to make them as tired as possible. However, the hungrier a cat is, the faster it will finish off its prey.

Why doesn’t a cat eat its prey?

In addition to the safety hazard mentioned above, there is another reason why your cat may start hunting and not eat its prey every time it goes outside. And the behaviour is again down to the survival instinct.

Cats are opportunistic hunters. In the wild, they need several meals a day, so they have evolved to take advantage of every opportunity to catch prey. And if the hunt is successful, they save the prey for later. Stockpiling food ensures that they always have a chance to eat when they get hungry – even if they can’t hunt “fresh”.

How do you make your outdoor cat quit hunting for real?

Responsibly kept domestic cats do not need to hunt. Dry and wet food, as well as treats contain all the essential nutrients their bodies need. However, you may still find that your curious pet is thinning out the birdlife in the area; it is best to try to prevent this as much as possible.

Some domestic cats find hunting mentally and physically stimulating. To prevent your cat from draining its excess energy on real prey, be more conscious of playing with it. Imitate natural hunting behaviour patterns with short but frequent play sessions. Choose a cat toy that best imitates the movements of live prey. For example, cat toys with sticks are a great way to satisfy your pet’s desire to hunt.

You should also pay attention to the composition of the food you feed your cat. Experience has shown that pets kept on a high quality diet that includes game meat are less likely to go after real prey.

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