Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps by Layla Morgan Wilde
Cats, even the cutest of kittens have a killer instinct. It’s an inherited and hard-wired behavior put into practice by the time a kitten is barely a month old. Mother cats will teach their kittens to hunt by example using trilling and other sounds to indicate the type of prey brought to the den. When kittens are about four weeks old, she brings dead prey to teach identification of prey species and later live prey to teach how to catch and kill. Kittens soon learn to swat, pounce and scoop with their claws extended. They learn to bring the prey home to share as their mother did for them and to play with the prey.
As adults, cats will bring humans (mother substitutes) their bounty as a shared offering. Depending on what’s available, it could be an actual mouse carcass or perhaps a toy mouse in your shoe. Specific hunting skills are inherited which explains why some cats are better mousers than birders.
Identical hunting behavior is learned whether a cat is catching real mice or toy mice. Even older adult cats that have never been exposed to live prey will hunt and kill when given the chance. They can’t help it. It’s something called a fixed action pattern which once started, they can’t stop what nature intended them to do. It’s a survival mechanism developed over thousands of years. Cats kill to live but they also live to kill. Hunting makes cats happy. When a cat is able to hunt, all the pleasure centers in their brain light up. There is nothing more alive and invigorating when cats catch a whiff of potential prey in the air.
As much as I detest the killing and manage to save most of creatures by monitoring my cats, I enjoy seeing how happy my cats during the hunting dance called a predatory sequence. All cats do the dance in more or less steps. Blinds cats do it. Old cats do it. Fat and well fed cats will do it. I’m convinced even a shortened predatory “dance sequence” has lengthened the life of my eighteen-year-old Siamese cat. Indoor cats do an abbreviated version of the predatory sequence but it’s still rewarding. By learning the steps we can spot the behavior and learn to be more creative when “play hunting” with our cats.
Steps of the Predatory Sequence
1) Prey Spotting.
It can happen in an instant when a stray fly buzzes by or after a long patient wait by a mole hole. This is the Eureka moment every cat hungers for. Even a dozing cat will suddenly perk up, their ears pointed forward and their entire body standing at attention. Game on! Indoor only cats must have a place where they can spot prey, like a perch near a window to take advantage of prey spotting.
2) Prey Stalking
This dance step can be fast or slow depending on the situation and the distance from their prey. The cat’s tail might initially swish high in excitement but then lowered with the rest of the body skimming the ground as focused as a laser. They inch forward in slow motion, every muscle articulated, perhaps stopping and waiting before moving forward again. The greater the distance, the longer the stop and start movement. Kittens learn to stalk as early as three weeks old and are proficient by nine weeks old.
3) Prey Pounce
Houston we have lift-off! This is a split-second action reaching for the prey. It can be a horizontal stretch in the grass or under a sofa, a vertical leap straight up to catch a moth or a sideways downward pounce. Kittens learn to swat first and then pounce, learning the sideways downward pounce by about nine weeks.
Not all pounces succeed on the first try. If they aren’t successful in making contact, cats are hard-wired to go back to square one and repeat the steps: spot, stalk and pounce again but in an accelerated version.
4) Prey Gotcha
Houston, we have contact. This is the exiting moment of the first touch. It could be an exploratory batting using one paw to probe a spider, or a two-pawed grab with claws extended. The pleasure centers in a cat’s brain are flashing like a pinball machine. They haven’t done all this work for nothing. There has to be a pay-off. This is why toys like laser lights which don’t allow a cat to ever win aren’t as satisfying as allowing them the catch their “prey”.
5) Prey Pay Day – The Kill
This is the most misunderstand step in the predatory sequence. Once the prey is immobilized with a cat’s claws, the only thing left to do is administer a kill bite, but this isn’t as easy it seems. A cat must be in the correct position. With deadly prey, let’s say a poisonous snake, a sharp-toothed squirrel or even a rat, a cat’s survival is crucial. A wounded cat in the wild is a dead cat. To avoid a messy fight, they let go of their prey for a couple seconds to adjust their position and aim for the nape of the neck. A successful kill bite means severing the prey’s spinal cord for a quick, clean kill. This might take a few tries giving the illusion of a cat toying with or even torturing their prey but the cat simply is doing their evolutionary right thing. The mouse is caught, let go, caught, let go until the correct position is achieved. If the prey plays dead, the predatory sequence sputters to a stop and is only re-ignited with movement. This is why we might see a cat pawing at a dead mouse or even flipping it in the air. Getting the prey (dead or fake) to move jump-starts step #5 for a repeat performance.
Movement is a key part when play hunting with a cat. A toy must move. A cat might get the ball rolling alone but cats don’t usually use toys to play with each other. Cats may play “soccer” solo with other cat watching from the sidelines. They won’t usually join in because genetically cats are independent and not pack hunters. Cats may bat at a toy mouse but prefer having humans interact by getting a toy into motion and thereby the initiating the predatory sequence.
6) Prey Clean & Crunch
Prey unlike cat food isn’t neatly packaged. Prey eating requires work. There are feathers to be torn, fur and muscles to be stripped, bones to be crunched. Well-fed cats may forgo this final step, being satisfied with the kill. Indoor cats usually avoid step #6 unless in an aggressive mood. Some cats develop a desire for eating feathers or a pica behavior like wool sucking.
It’s easy to confuse the predatory instinct of hunting real prey with the “play hunting” of indoor only cats. Indoor cats know perfectly well that a fake mouse is fake but go through the motions of hunting because it gives them pleasure. Granted it’s not as juicy as the real deal but for indoor only cats this is the only way to satisfy the hunting instinct. This is why interactive play with your cat and a variety of toy “prey” adds happiness and enriches the well being of every cat.
After years of observing cats hunt, it’s clear the outdoor predatory dance is a superior sensory experience allowing a cat to be a natural cat, but safety must always be the first consideration. Like the dance of life, it requires a balance, weighing the risks against the pleasures. Enclosed garden catios and walking cats on a leash are two ways for cats to experience a taste of the great outdoors with reduced risk.