People who don’t like cats criticise the species for being nasty and mean because they play with their prey, which is usually a mouse. Harrison Weir, the founder of the cat fancy, calls this “The Cat as a Tormentor”.
He quotes Shakespeare, in his poem “The Rape of Lucrece”, saying:
“Yet foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his holdfast for the weak mouse panteth”
Was Shakespeare a cat-hater? I don’t know. No one knows, but he used the word “foul”. Strong language.
On the frontispiece of Jane Collier’s “An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting” (1753) a cat plays with a mouse before killing it:
The cat doth play
And after slay
Clearly, for centuries the domestic cat has been in need of a public relations consultant 😉 People have viewed the behavior of a cat playing with prey before killing it as a cruel and nasty personality trait. “Help, my cat is a torturer!”
We have interpreted this behavior through human culture. In other words, we have put a human interpretation on a form of non-human behavior. Is this fair and sensible?
No one has explained this behavior better than Dr Desmond Morris. In fact, I don’t think anyone has explained it other than him and he does it from the viewpoint of a famous and respected scientist and biologist.
Cats are well able to kill a mouse or bird quickly by delivering a bite to the neck, severing the spinal cord. Why, then, mess around beforehand? Trapping and releasing a mouse or throwing it in air can cause the mouse to die of shock.
An important point to note is that we never see wild cat species mess around like this. For a wild cat, the modus operandi is to kill as efficiently and as fast as possible. Neither do feral cats indulge themselves by playing with prey. This behavior is therefore domestic cat behavior.
Domestic cats are well fed and have rusty hunting skills. There are few mice to catch. My Bininie caught one her whole life! And, yes, she did play with it.
There are two explanations:
- A domestic cat, who has had little chance to express her desire to hunt, overdoes the process when given the opportunity, teasing out the occasion. She indulges in trap-and-release play. The cat is extending the hunt.
- The domestic cat treats the mouse as a rat. Rats can hurt a cat so the cat bats it and stuns it before delivering the killer bite. When this form of hunting is applied to a little mouse it looks cruel. The cat is playing safe because she has rusty hunting skills.
The next time you see your cat “being cruel” to a mouse remember she is behaving instinctively, based on survival, and has no knowledge of the word “cruel” and “torture”.