Do Cats Hunt and Kill Rats Out Of Instinct Or Are They Taught to Do So?

Although the boundary between acting on instinct and acting on what you’ve been taught is often blurred, with respect to domestic cats, a study by Professor Kuo Zing Yang in the 1920s and the 1930s, published in The Journal of Comparative Psychology, showed:

“that kittens can be made to kill a rat, to love it, to hate it, to fear it or to play with it: it depends on the life history of the kitten”.

In other words kittens are trained to hunt by their mothers.

Perhaps most informed cat owners are aware of this. They might have become aware of it because on the Internet there are many examples of cats enjoying the company of animals which would normally be their prey such as mice, rats, parrots and birds. We should remember wild cat species. In all the species, you can see clearly the training to hunt that takes place in a purposeful manner in the early years.

The conclusion therefore is that some domestic cats will be better at hunting than others. They will be more interested in it than others. And if you want a cat who hunts mice and other rodents, harking back to the very beginning of the domestication of the cat, you’d be better to adopt a working stray cat who is sufficiently domesticated to integrate within the household but sufficiently well trained to keep the mice population down.

The question I have is whether the hunting skills and desires of domestic cats are wholly dependent upon being trained by their mother. I am inclined to question the conclusions of this study. As I said the boundary between instinctive behavior and trained behavior is blurred and I’m inclined to believe that although trained hunting skills are the predominant influence, instinct also has a role to play. Therefore all domestic cats will have this desire to hunt to a lesser or greater degree and in some cases it is so reduced as to be almost non-existent. No doubt the lack of desire and inability to hunt will become more predominant in the long distance future as domestic cats evolve further.

A well-known zoologist, Dr Desmond Morris, in his book Catwatching, states that cats do not need to learn how to perform the killing action but it does help if they get some instruction from their mother. So when kittens are reared by scientists in isolation from their mother they are able to kill prey when given live rodents for the first time but not every kitten is successful. Kittens that were untrained by their mother but reared in a rodent killing environment where they could witness kills but never saw the prey eaten were much more successful. And then finally, very efficient killers have to experience a kittenhood which exposes them to as much prey killing as possible. The best hunters are those which have been trained by their mother by accompanying her when she is hunting. And a younger age they learn when their mother brings prey back to the nest.

“If the mother does not bring prey back to the kittens in the nest between the sixth and 20th week of their lives, they will be far less efficient as hunters in later life.”

Cat haters say that domestic cats are unable to keep rats and mice populations down and therefore they can be of no use in terms of working cat status. This is not true because many cats do hunt but some individuals are disinclined to do so for the reasons stated above. Also, the primary reason why people adopt domestic cat is for companionship. Long gone are the days when the domestic cat’s main purpose was to keep down mice and rat populations in grain stores. That said, fell cats or semi-feral cats can still be of great use on farms. And there is a bunch of well-known mice hunting cats patrolling central government departments including No 10 in the UK. Some are better than others.

Instinct = an innate form of behavior. Inherited. This is a nature/nurture article.

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