Domestic cat predatory behaviour linked to hunger, prey size and personality

It is commonly said that hunger does not dictate whether a domestic cat engages in predatory behaviour as domestic cats instinctively hunt and this desire is not influenced by whether they are hungry or not. However, the picture is more nuanced than that according to the findings of a study which was published along while ago in February 1979 (see base of page) and based on general research and experiences.

Domestic cat hunting.
Domestic cat hunting. Image: Mikeb using Canva.
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Interaction of hunger and prey size with predatory behaviour

The source for this section is the study referenced.

The scientist manipulated the level of hunger and the size of the prey to see how these factors influenced the hunting behaviour of domestic cats.

They concluded that when a domestic cat is hungry there is a higher probability that they will kill prey animals.

Secondly, hunger isn’t a condition for killing. That’s part of the original point I make above but the answer is more nuanced because the probability of killing prey animals can be predicted if the size of the animal and the level of hunger are known.

And if the cat is hungry and the animal is small it is more likely that the cat will kill the animal. But if the cat isn’t hungry and the prey animal is big it is less likely they will kill the animal.

And if they don’t kill the animal, it is more likely that they will play with the prey animal.

In the words of the scientist, “When these factors [hunger and the size of the animal] were in conflict, cats tended to play with the prey before, after or instead of killing”.

Domestic cats are more likely to kill prey when they are hungry

The source for this section is general research and personal experience. It adds to the above.

It makes sense that a domestic cat will be more likely to kill a prey animal when they are hungry. Although as stated above the general consensus is that hunger doesn’t absolutely dictate whether they hunt or not. It just dictates when they kill and eat the animal. Although as hunger increases their predatory instincts become more pronounced.

When domestic cats are well fed and therefore not hungry their hunting behaviour may be reduced to playing with the prey animal rather than hunting to obtain food.

Summarized: I think domestic cat predation behaviour can be summarised by saying that the instinct to hunt is always present and therefore is not directly or absolutely dictated by hunger but hunger increases the intensity and focus of their hunting behaviour making them more active and persistent in stalking and capturing prey. Also: overall domestic cat predatory behaviour is dependent of 3 factors: personality, hunger and prey size.

Domestic cats are more likely to play with small prey animals such as small rodents and insects. They will display pouncing, batting and chasing behaviour under these circumstances.

When they are faced with a larger prey animal such as a pigeon or rabbit, domestic cats are more likely to exhibit serious hunting behaviour with the intention of consuming it. Under these circumstances the behaviour is driven more by hunting instincts and predatory drive rather than playful behaviour.

It’s important to note, however, that individual cats may display varying behaviours based on their personalities and experiences. Some domestic cats are keen hunters and some simply are not. Hunger and prey size are two factors but the third is the characteristics and personality of the individual cat.

Study referred to: Predation and predatory play behaviour of domestic cats. Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-3472(79)90129-5

Other sources: Myself and general internet searches.

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