How Do Cats Learn To Hunt?

By Elisa Black-Taylor

How do cats learn to hunt? Is it by instinct or do they have to be trained in this skill? As it turns out, it’s a little of both. Perhaps even a bit of genetic coding thrown in for good measure.

Michael did a similar article on this topic back in May. Here’s the link: Mouser Cat. I like his comment that cats have an instinct to hunt, whether or not the cat is hungry.

Domestic cat on the prowl
Domestic cat on the prowl. Photo by Hans Pama.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

A kitten is dependent on it’s mother for food during the first month of life. In turn, the mother spends about 80% of her time with her litter. By the age of six weeks, the mother only spend 10-20% of her time with the kittens. She has to hunt for prey and teach her kittens how to turn that prey into food. Kittens and cats tend to choose prey they saw their mother kill. Even kittens who were separated by their mother at a young age still have hunting skills that improve as they grow older.

A mother cat who lives indoors also has a job to do. She must teach by example to eat from the food bowl. Kittens learn young to imitate their mother. Even with foods not normally associated with a cats diet. I found it interesting that kittens would eat a banana if they witness their mother eating a banana. This shows cats learn by watching their mother and other siblings.

Cats have been cherished for thousands of years and much of this is due to their hunting skills. They were kept on ships to control the rodent population. Farmers found them valuable in killing not only rodents, but also rabbits who would otherwise eat their crops. A good cat hunter could be sold for large sums of money and was a welcome addition to the home.

I found it interesting in the article Michael wrote that starving a cat didn’t make it a better hunter. It’s best to feed the cat and not depend on hunting skills to keep a cat fed.

We have a few mousers in our home. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the mice here are few and far between. Our calicos make the best mousers. Especially Lola. She was an orphan kitten we took in at almost three months of age. A mother cat had “adopted” her when she just wandered up one day and joined the litter. Lola’s new mother was an outdoor cat who lived in the country. I read a few years back that it’s best not to separate a mother cat and her kittens until three months of age. Not because of nutritional needs, but so the mother cat would have time to teach her kittens to hunt. Lola apparently had a very good substitute mother.

My daughter Laura has been known to open her eyes to find Lola in her face holding a dead mouse. I don’t think she screamed after that first time…

Our Furby was rescued around the age of six weeks. He’s still incompetent when it comes to hunting. He’s a very clumsy cat, and hunting is no exception. His idea of catching a mouse is to wait for Lola to seriously weaken the rodent, then Furby rushes in and “steals” it from her.

Unfortunately, there’s no proven method to stop a cat from hunting. They tend to enjoy playing with their catch before clamping down for the kill. Then they play with the prey until they grow bored. At this time they either eat the whole prey (or the parts they find tasty) or walk away from it.

I’ve watched our only dog Cujo develop an unusual skill from being around our cats. I’ve never seen a dog “stalk” before. Our cats like to play “ambush” with Cujo every night. I love to watch this. Not only for entertainment, but because it tires everyone out before bedtime. There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep with a hyper pup.

The cats like to crouch down while playing ambush, imitating how a cat will crouch down before jumping on its prey. Cujo has watched this behavior for a few months now and is now imitating the cats. He’ll crouch down with his stomach almost dragging the ground and slowly creep forward until the cat he plans to pounce on come into sight. I’ve NEVER seen a dog do this before. It makes me wonder what else my cats will teach him. Would Cujo learn to catch mice if he watched my other cats doing this?

In closing, I’d like to tell the readers about our biggest “catch.” It was with our cat Smoky and happened back in the late 1990’s. I had a hole in my bedroom closet that acted as a cat door. It led to the ground with a foot and a half drop. One day I came in from grocery shopping to find a rather large rabbit half eaten on our living room floor. The rabbit easily weighed five or six pounds. That was the last “present” Smoky was allowed to bring me. I boarded up the hole that night. I still don’t see how she managed to jump that high and get herself and the rabbit into the closet and drag it to the living room.

Cats enjoy hunting, playing with their prey, then killing and eating what they have so skillfully earned. We, as mere humans, must accept this.

Do any of you have funny cat “prey” stories?


Original Photo on Flickr

3 thoughts on “How Do Cats Learn To Hunt?”

  1. My favorite hunting experience with Monty was the day he caught a mouse five minutes before I had to leave for work. I had been giving him a little outside time in the morning. Growling from Monty warned me not to try to separate cat from mouse. I was getting desperate, so I yelled, ” Treat!” Monty ran up to the door with the poor mouse still in his mouth and still alive. So I opened the door and in came cat and mouse. I put down food for Monty, and he dropped the mouse for that, but it took off running and I lost sight of it. I grabbed some salad tongs and began searching. The mouse was hiding in a pile of shoes next to my vacuum cleaner in the hall. (I’m not a great housekeeper.) I only knew it was there because that’s where Monty was showing interest. There we were together searching out this mouse. To Monty it was the greatest thing we had ever done together. I found the mouse, scooped him up, dropped him (oops) scooped him up again and put him outside the side door. Poor thing. He was alive but pretty unhappy. “I’m so sorry,” I said to him. He scurried away up the driveway toward the front yard. Good choice, since Monty only goes out in the back. Monty didn’t seem to realize what I’d done, because he was still looking for the mouse when I left for work.
    This scenario happened a second time, on a Saturday. Again I had to work, again I was giving Monty some outside time. I felt bad to bring him in, so I said to my husband, “Monty’s outside. You could let him in in five minutes if you want. He’ll be ok for a little while unsupervised.” As I went out to my car I peered through the chain link fence we have between the back porch and garage (put up for Monty’s benefit) and noticed Monty was very interested in something. Hmmm… I ran into the house yelling, “It’s Mousecapades again and this time it’s your problem!” I had to leave for work. My husband told me later that he just went out and told Monty to drop the mouse and get in his house. And he did it. Four times Monty looked back at the mouse, but he did go in, because when my husband says, “Get in your house” and points at the house, Monty does it. He doesn’t yell. He just says it with quiet authority. Which proves two things. Monty knows exactly what I’m telling him most of the time, he just chooses not to do it, and my husband is somehow the top cat around our house. Monty even purrs louder for Jeff, which he explains by saying that Monty prefers attention from the alpha cat. It means more. So I’m just the humble poop scooper and food giver, but Jeff is the one Monty really looks up to, to the extent that he will drop the mouse when Jeff tells him to. I wouldn’t have believed it, but Monty caught a mouse another day, and I just went and got my husband. Sure enough, Monty dropped the mouse for him. I wish I had that influence over Monty, because he killed two bunnies on my watch. One he paralyzed and then lost interest and I had to take the poor thing to be euthanized, because after two hours he was still alive, back legs not working. To me there wasn’t really any choice there but to put him down, but I didn’t have the heart to do it myself. Monty also had a chipmunk in his mouth once, but it did get away. That was in front of company. We were enjoying cold drinks on the back porch, watching Monty play, and sudden it was carnage in the back yard again! He’s killed two birds and caught one that got away. And my personal favorite was the time I was sitting in the back porch stretching my hamstrings and suddenly I heard this scrabbling sound. The next thing I knew a wild eyed squirrel was running right at me with a black cat hot on his heels. He turned away last second and did manage to escape but for a moment I was sure he was going to end up running right over me to get away. My sister calls Monty, “Killer” but her cat used to bring live mice up from the basement. Then he would get afraid of them and meow– a certain meow Jen came to know as, “Help me with this mouse, Mom!” That’s how I thought of salad tongs to grab him. My sister would say to Kobe, “You watch the mouse, I’ll grab the salad tongs!” Our aunt said to remind her to never eat salad at our house. Kobe hasn’t caught anything else since we blocked the hole where the mice were coming in. Watching Kobe hunting in the basement helped us find it. Jen said during that time we had mice in the basement her cat took play very seriously. She said that it did seem that he was practicing for his next encounter with a mouse.

  2. Yes we cat lovers need to accept that hunting is part of our cats heritage and that they follow their deepest instincts in doing it.
    Our Jozef whose father was feral is the best hunter we’ve ever had, he likes to bring his prey home but knows living rodents are not allowed in lol Walter sometimes watches and waits as he knows Jo loses interest once he’s got the mouse on his own territory, it saves him having to go and start a hunt from ‘scratch’ lol
    Our funniest was Bert, he only caught one mouse in his entire long life, I saw him sitting in the garden and I thought somethins was wrong with him as he looked strange. I picked him up and a mouse ran out from under him, he’d sat on it! Mickey ran happily off and Bert came in saying ‘Thanks mam, I didn’t know what on earth to do with that thing’ lol lol He did make one kill though….a spider ….he had big furry paws and he gave it a bat as it ran then looked shocked when it ended up squashed.

  3. Personally, I’d like to go hunting for Woodsman with a rifle…but I guess you are talking about a cat. My cats have never been great hunters. Binnie caught one mouse in 18+ years. I have not noticed Charlie hunting. He goes outside for a look and a pee etc. Then he comes in. My first cat Missie was the most athletic and was more of a hunter but for most of her life she was in Central London with a courtyard garden to go out into. No mice there. I have to confess to a more or less blank sheet on the kill count.


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