3 reasons why cats play with their prey, apparently torturing them

There are 3 reasons why domestic cats apparently torture their prey by playing with them. I list and discuss them here. It is a form of feline behaviour which at best irritates their human caregiver and at worst disgusts them. It does, however, provide the cat’s owner with an opportunity to save the mouse. That certainly applies to me. I have saved many a mouse under these circumstances.

Mouse and cat
Cat ponders on mouse’s presence. Photo in public domain
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Domestic versus wild cat

The apparent enjoyment by domestic cats in ‘torturing’ a mouse or small bird is not the behaviour of a wild cat. It is not the behaviour of the wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat. The wildcat will kill as efficiently as possible and the difference in behaviour is due to domestication.

Domestic cat capable of killing quickly

The domestic cat is indeed capable of killing a prey animal such as a mouse very quickly. But they may, and often do, engage in a game of “hit-and-chase” or “trap-and-release”. They knock the dying mouse around and chuck it into the air. Or they trap the mouse and then release it. They chase it around the home under curtains and sofas to where the mouse escapes for temporary relief from this torturing behaviour. In fact, sometimes domestic cats play for so long with their terrified prey that they lose the animal under an armchair or another item of furniture.

The act of a well-fed domestic cat – the 1st reason

The hit-and-chase or trap-and-release playing antics of a domestic cat are those of a well-fed companion animal in relatively hygienic suburban surroundings. Under these circumstances they don’t have a lot of opportunity to use their innate hunting skills; if they are let outside in the first place. Or if occasionally a mouse gets into the home when they are full-time indoor cats.

The occasional opportunity to prey upon a mouse is a great moment for a domestic cat. They want to prolong the activity as a consequence. We know that the domestic cat’s drive to hunt prey is not dependent upon hunger. It is an innate, constantly switched-on motivation when active. I guess it needs to be exercised. When it is not exercised due to a lack of access to prey animals the urge to hunt increases.

So, when the opportunity arises the domestic cat overreacts and teases out the moment so that the prey suffers a slow death. The cat is holding back on the killing bite to delay the moment.

Overreacting to the possible danger from a prey animal – the 2nd reason

Above, I mention that the domestic cat can overreact by extending the hunt due to a lack of opportunity to exercise this innate behaviour. Another form of overreacting is to be overly cautious when killing a prey animal.

When cats attack rats they can be nervous because rats are very good at defending themselves and are quite dangerous animals. Many stray cats ignore them for this reason. They can deliver a nasty bite to a cat when attempting to kill the rat. They therefore subdue the rat by slapping it around with their paws. It may beat a rat this way until it is dazed and confused. The cat then goes in for the killing bite.

The cat may employ this method on a relatively mouse as if they were dealing with a much larger rat which might threaten them. Under the circumstances the mouse can be killed during this foreplay before biting the animal to death. This is not play but a cat holding back because they are unsure of themselves. Perhaps, this is in part due to a lack of practice.

An experienced domestic cat who hunts a lot would probably not behave like this. Conversely, a pampered and well cared for cat who is rusty on the techniques of killing quickly may well prefer the safer option.

Semi-feral cats – 3rd reason

It is said that semi-feral cats or barn cats employed as pest controllers don’t normally indulge in this kind of torturing play with half-dead prey animals. This supports the above arguments. They are catching prey far more often and therefore are more confident and the need to extend the hunting process doesn’t exist.

However, occasionally female farm cats do extend the killing moment. They do this because they bring mice back to the den to demonstrate how they kill the animal to their kittens during a certain stage in their development towards independence. It’s a maternal teaching process.

This maternal teaching process may be evident in domestic cats who are not barn cats. It may account for another reason why domestic cats play with prey animals.

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