Cats do genuinely play with prey. They are not torturing it. Neither are they are protecting themselves and trying to stun their prey. They are simply enjoying playing with the mouse or whatever the prey item happens to be.
The general feeling is – and experts endorse this – that domestic cats appear to be playing with prey when what they are really doing is playing safe when they kill prey they have caught. The cat does not want to get hurt so they bat it around, pacifying it until almost dead. In many instances, the domestic cat is out of practice in hunting and killing. Being cautious when killing prey makes sense.
However, latterly, I have come to the conclusion that cats like to play with their prey for the sheer enjoyment of it. How did I come to this conclusion?
Real Domestic Cat Play
First, my cat plays almost endlessly with toy mice. He plays with them in exactly the same manner he’d play with the real thing. His behaviour has all the elements of play about it. There is no killing going on and it does not look like practice for hunting.
Servals Play in the Way as Domestic Cats
Secondly, servals are known to play with their prey. It can last for 15 minutes. Serval prey is small such as rodents. The serval stuns the animal by jumping high and landing its forepaws on the prey (domestic cat do this too, in play). There is no need for the cat to be cautious at that point. The prey item may already be dead and if not a bite will do the job. Also to play for 15 minutes indicates that the serval is not being cautious in killing prey but enjoying playing.
In fact this behavioral trait has been sufficiently studied to give it a name: “Angling play” (Leyhausen 1979). Once a mouse is captured the serval allows the mouse to escape into a crevice where the serval has fun prodding it and dragging it out. If there is no crevice, the serval will find one. If the mouse does not escape to a crevice, the serval pushes it into one (source: San Diego Zoo, serval fact sheet). All these behaviors mirror those of the domestic cat. My cat does exactly this and there will be a pile of homemade cat toys stuffed under a chest of drawers or sidboard, where ultimately he’ll fail to retrieve them. I step in to help.
Some observers make the leap from cat play to torture. Cats don’t know what torture is. It is a human concept. At the same time the cat has no conception that what they are doing looks cruel to humans. Why should they?
Cats don’t cruelly torture prey, they play with their prey (sometimes). I believe that for the wild cat living in the wild ‘play’ is a form of mental stimulation. They are efficient hunters so they become bored. It seems that not all wild cat species like to play. The serval is said to be intelligent. Perhaps this is a reason why the serval likes to play. He/she demands mental stimulation. Also serval prey is small. It can be played with. It goes without saying that large prey cannot be played with.
Another reason why the serval and the domestic cat like to play with their prey is because it is relatively easy to catch and kill. The cat likes to extend the hunting session. This is far from the case with lions or tigers, for instance, when attacking large prey, which is genuinely dangerous and could kill the cat. Large wild cats need to kill large prey to survive.
Is it unreasonable to believe that cats enjoy playing just for the sake of having fun rather than there being an underlying reason behind it such as practicing hunting skills when young? I don’t believe it is