In July 1980, I took in a young stray cat, who I named JoMamma, and her litter of kittens during a heat wave. It was my first experience watching a mother cat teach her kittens how to kill and consume prey. She skillfully carried a half-dead squirrel up the railing to my second-floor balcony for her babies to see. It was fascinating to watch her work as she tossed the squirrel in the air, over and over again, proudly showing the kittens her next meal. I was mesmerized by the show and the cat’s parenting skills.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized the significance of what she was doing and I now realize how difficult life on the streets must be for single, homeless cats, caring for kittens on their own. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not natural killers. Strays, however, will often learn specific, lethal hunting skills in order to survive. So what I witnessed that day was a momma cat demonstrating for her kittens how to kill and eat animals. For her, hunting a meal had become a necessity.
Cats are NOT natural born killers
Every cat parent has seen their cat stalk and attack a favorite toy. Usually, a cat’s eyes go wide as they crouch low to the ground just before pouncing. It’s a very distinct, instinctual behavior. But what many don’t know is that killing is a learned behavior, rather than pure instinct.
All cats love to hunt, but they don’t all kill, and even fewer actually eat their prey. That’s because they are not born with the instinct to kill for food or eat their catch. Much like all mammals, eating habits are typically learned behaviors.
Mother cats begin by presenting dead animals to their kittens early on. Many will trill and use sound to get the litter’s attention. Then they will consume their catch in front of the babies to show them what a good meal looks like. Once the kittens have become accustomed to watching mom eat, they are encouraged to join in.
When mom brings home partially dead prey and finishes the kill in front of the kittens, she is teaching them one of their first lessons in survival training. This is the behavior I witnessed JoMamma exhibiting when she was tossing that poor squirrel in the air. Once the kittens figured out what they were supposed to do with the animals she caught, they were allowed to “play” with them too.
JoMamma encouraged the kittens to practice their skills by coaxing them to continue until they learned to kill the debilitated, slow-moving prey themselves. Then they were allowed to eat it. As time went on, she brought more and more animals home, and soon all of her young became skilled at hunting and killing themselves.
The instinct to hunt
Killing may not be instinctual, but all cats are hard-wired to chase and hunt. These behaviors begin with play, so kittens can hone their technical skills to chase and hunt. They begin early with running, jumping, pouncing, and chasing each other. Along with learning to use sight and sound to locate bugs, lizards and other interesting critters, play helps cats to develop the coordination and timing needed to successfully capture prey. Kittens learn to adjust their speed to the speed of moving objects and they learn to gauge distance by pouncing.
Because all cats are different, they will develop preferences for hunting techniques and activities that bring them the most success. Some cats are more adept at fishing, while others excel at chasing. One of our cats loves to jump and would likely be good at snatching birds or butterflies out of the air if given the opportunity to hunt outdoors. Cats who prefer to chase after toys on the ground might excel at hunting lizards or mice. It’s important to engage your cat in the type of play that best suits their hunting style.
The most common way cats catch prey is by a method known as the predatory sequence. This sequence consists of search, stalk, and then chase or pounce. The search portion of the sequence usually involves a cat using her senses to find her prey. First, she may sniff the air, or if she’s already spotted her target, her pupils will dilate. Then she crouches low to the ground and stalks her prey. She may do this visually or physically, such as the adorable butt wiggle that precedes a pounce. Then, in her final move, kitty leaps forward, either landing on her prey or chasing after it. It’s a very calculated and meticulous sequence of events, and it can be a lot of fun to watch.
Here is one we know you will love:
Kittens learn how to stalk as early as three weeks old and are proficient by nine weeks old. They first learn to swat and then to pounce. Play within a litter is often kittens mimicking the predatory sequence they’ve seen mom demonstrate. And we’ve all seen cute pictures and videos of puffy little kittens performing the sideways downward dance with their fur standing on end.
The thrill of the chase
Since it is an instinct all cats possess, we believe all cats should be allowed (and encouraged) to express their natural desire to hunt. Luckily, they don’t have to go outside to appease their predatory instincts. On the contrary, cats can be given ample opportunity indoors to satisfy their needs. All it takes is play – and lots of it.
Here’s how to satisfy kitty’s need to hunt without ever leaving the safety of your home:
- Look for toys that spark interest in search, stalk, and chase. Remember, each cat will enjoy different skills. Discovering your cat’s hunting preference is the best way to determine the type of toys that will keep him active.
- Change out toys regularly. Variety is the spice of life and a typical cat will get bored easily with the same game over and over again. Rotating toys makes the hunt more interesting and should be done often.
- Wand toys mimic prey. Cats need lots of different types of wand toys to keep them stimulated and our newest Wiggly Wand Squid gets cats moving.
- Movement is a key part when play hunting with a cat. A toy must move in order to garner your cat’s attention. Balls that roll, stuffed animals with sounds, moving feathers, toys in tunnels, laser lights, straws and other engaging toys help tap into their natural and basic need to hunt, stalk and chase.
Keeping indoor cats enriched, engaged, and entertained is crucial to keeping them happy. Thankfully, doing so is easy when you give them sufficient opportunities to hunt. So how will encourage your furry feline to play?