Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps

Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps by Layla Morgan Wilde

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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.

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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.

hunting-predatory-sequence-catsIt 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

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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

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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.

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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

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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”.

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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.

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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.

16 Comments

on “Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps
16 Comments on “Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps
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  2. Our champion hunter is Carl. He once killed 3 mice in 20 minutes. The mom thought he was taking the same one out of the trash at first. I love the possessive look a cat with a mouse has. I’ve also wondered about the toy mice in the shoes too!
    Oui Oui recently posted…Flashback Friday

  3. That is such a good description and just what the cats around here do. And they all watch as someone catches something and then they grab it if they can. I had it happen today.
    If you want that picture of the feral kitty on my blog advertising spay and neuter, you are more than welcome to take it from my blog. I sure don’t care and would rather have it advertised.
    Marg recently posted…Formerly Feral cat Friday

  4. The love of the hunt….it’s so fascinating! We especially enjoyed your fabulous photos! (Houston we have lift off!!! MOL!)
    Although Katie is an indoor kitty, we love to play hunting games.
    …oh, and we can none forget the mouse incident. ; )
    ~Glogirly

  5. That was very interesting to read in detail. I could recognise exactly the way Flynn hunts. He is a very good hunter and not much escapes him. He has always been discouraged from catching birds though and rarely attempts to catch them, but will still watch them and chitter at them. Hunting is pot luck with Eric. He mostly barges in and if he catches a mouse it is luck more than skill.
    Eric and Flynn recently posted…The Friday Flashback- Snakes.

  6. What a fantastic post!! I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that goes into so much detail about this — it’s a fascinating aspect of felines. I didn’t know why they sometimes flipped the mouse in the air. I have seen Mickey bolt off after a gopher and go from zero to 60 in a split second. He has come away with it in his mouth too, which always amazes me. He just zoomed and grabbed. When I play with Rocky inside with his fake furry mouse, I don’t like it when he catches it, because all he wants to do is chew the thing until it’s a soggy mess. So…he knows it’s fake, but why does he get so much enjoyment from eating it?
    Julia Williams recently posted…If Cats Had Thumbs, Would They Conquer the World?

  7. Very interesting to see the sequence written down. I have seen Austin complete no. 6 and it is not a pleasant sight. On the whole though he stops at 5! (Still not pleasant, but as you say it is all in the scheme of things. xx
    CATachresis recently posted…Des Res

  8. This reminds me of when Ched and Mao kept watch under the stove for the mouse. They kept watch for months. Before I even saw or heard the sweet, dirty little critter, I knew there had to be one, because they wouldn’t waste hours a day for nothing. When the mouse would squeak, oh how our boys would get so excited. They’d swish and sniff. The mouse escaped a couple of times and our boys chased it down. Mao had it in his mouth, then dropped it. That’s when the mouse ran into the liquor cabinet near the floor, with Mao after him. Months later, I heard a loud crash and Ched had the mouse in his mouth. The mouse had sneaked out from under the stove and Ched had pounced. The poor thing was unconscious, likely bleeding in his brain. They played with it a few minutes, I filmed it, then flushed it down the toilet.

    On other days, they love the catnip mouse, catnip, the scratching pole and the laser light. And the birds outside the window. Or even the bird whistle.
    Kathryn recently posted…Table of Contents

  9. Derry is a very patient hunter, with his prey usually being moths or dragonfly-type flying insects outside in our little garden. He will move centimetre by centimetre until he’s close enough to pounce.

    Nicki, on the other hand, is less successful because patience is not wired into him. LOL. Sometimes he’ll manage to get a moth, but usually he just charges ahead full steam and scares the “prey” off.

    On the other hand, Derry really isn’t interested in toy mice, but Nicki LOVES one squeaky mouse in particular and will focus on it for quite a while, at least until he gets it wedged under the couch.

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