The Cat Torments His Prey

People who don’t like cats criticise the species for being nasty and mean because they play with their prey, which is usually a mouse. Harrison Weir, the founder of the cat fancy, calls this “The Cat as a Tormentor”.

He quotes Shakespeare, in his poem “The Rape of Lucrece”, saying:

“Yet foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his holdfast for the weak mouse panteth”

Was Shakespeare a cat-hater? I don’t know. No one knows, but he used the word “foul”. Strong language.

On the frontispiece of Jane Collier’s “An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting” (1753) a cat plays with a mouse before killing it:

The cat doth play
And after slay

Clearly, for centuries the domestic cat has been in need of a public relations consultant 😉 People have viewed the behavior of a cat playing with prey before killing it as a cruel and nasty personality trait. “Help, my cat is a torturer!”

The cat as the tormentor
The cat as the tormentor. Picture on left by Sean Dreilinger. Middle picture: Laura Sammons. Right: Michael.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

We have interpreted this behavior through human culture. In other words, we have put a human interpretation on a form of non-human behavior. Is this fair and sensible?

No one has explained this behavior better than Dr Desmond Morris. In fact, I don’t think anyone has explained it other than him and he does it from the viewpoint of a famous and respected scientist and biologist.

Cats are well able to kill a mouse or bird quickly by delivering a bite to the neck, severing the spinal cord. Why, then, mess around beforehand? Trapping and releasing a mouse or throwing it in air can cause the mouse to die of shock.

An important point to note is that we never see wild cat species mess around like this. For a wild cat, the modus operandi is to kill as efficiently and as fast as possible. Neither do feral cats indulge themselves by playing with prey. This behavior is therefore domestic cat behavior.

Domestic cats are well fed and have rusty hunting skills. There are few mice to catch. My Bininie caught one her whole life! And, yes, she did play with it.

There are two explanations:

  1. A domestic cat, who has had little chance to express her desire to hunt, overdoes the process when given the opportunity, teasing out the occasion. She indulges in trap-and-release play. The cat is extending the hunt.
  2. The domestic cat treats the mouse as a rat. Rats can hurt a cat so the cat bats it and stuns it before delivering the killer bite. When this form of hunting is applied to a little mouse it looks cruel. The cat is playing safe because she has rusty hunting skills.

The next time you see your cat “being cruel” to a mouse remember she is behaving instinctively, based on survival, and has no knowledge of the word “cruel” and “torture”.

27 thoughts on “The Cat Torments His Prey”

  1. Jozef had a feral father and through the day if he goes for a rest he prefers to sleep in his little bed by the radiator under the desk in my room, rather than on my bed if I’m not in it, at night he sleeps on my bed.

    Where as Walter lies stretched out on Barbara’s bed for his daytime snoozes and his night sleep. Jozef also likes to burrow under the duvet next to me in the wee small hours, we think he has inherited some feral habits from his dad.

    • Interesting. It seems feral cats are more defensive, playing safer, more like wild cats than domestic cats. To be expected. In the wild the wild cats find old burrows, caves and tree stumps, that sort of thing for protection.

      • I believe the old saying ‘You can take the cat out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the cat’

  2. Monty’s Mom, I have come to believe that certain domestic cats will hiss as a display of excitement-they just cannot help themselves, even though they are loved and fed well. These cats seem to do this from innate behavior (protecting their meal, confused from the adrenaline rush), resulting in hisses from the pleasure, not displeasure. Is this a possibility? Please let me know what you think, I’m all ears…

    • I think you could be correct, Cal. There is a hard-wired wild cat behavior thing going on protecting prey and so on but after 10,000 years of domestication it may have become modified. Some cats get used to hissing and it doesn’t mean much. I meet a cat that hisses at me and rubs his cheek against my legs and hand at the same time! Seems bizarre but true.

    • Cal, I think you nailed it. I think it was from excitement and the accompanying adrenaline rush that produced the hiss. The redirected aggression theory is good too and would be valid had it been Jo or Walter, but Monty is a very direct cat who would never beat around the bush. When my goal was to cause him to drop it and lose his catch he was obviously growling at me, and very annoyed with me. Had he still wanted to warn me off he would not have redirected anything. Not that some cats wouldn’t, but I know Monty.

      I think Cal has it. Catching that bird was the highlight of Monty’s whole week if not the entire month. He was very excited. As I say to him, “It’s always a good day when you get to kill something.” He agrees. Recently, Monty hissed at my husband when they were playing. They love to play together and Monty really gets into it. Suddenly, Monty was hissing. I said, “What happened, did he get hurt?” My husband was just as surprised and perceiving it as aggressive behavior from Monty, which was unwarranted, stopped playing with him, following our “nobody wants to play with bitey cat” protocol. If Monty gets too rough, or does something like pounce on your face, the game ends right then. So Jeff ended the game and he seemed a little hurt, like Monty had said something offensive to him just out of the blue. But maybe Monty was just really excited and hissed because of excitement and adrenaline. I let Monty catch his “prey” too easily when we play, according to my husband. Jeff challenges him more and tries to make it more realistic as to how a small animal might react, even charging him (I saw a mouse actually do that to Monty) and certainly evading him. I let Monty catch and bite the toy more, wanting it to be fun for him. He has to really work to catch his “prey” with Jeff. I think he just got a little worked up and wasn’t being aggressive toward my husband– he just was really into the game. Thanks to Jeff’s excellent training I’m sure there will be more “carnage in the back yard,” as I call it when Monty catches something.

      • Ruth, that reply made me laugh out loud! Monty must have forgotten himself, bless his soul. What a dear! Where do your kittens sleep at night? (My Shrimp, Michael and Muckaluck sleep on me, on the couch–they don’t let me move. :D) I love it.

          • Oddly enough, Cal, when I have a full bladder is about the only time Monty wants to sit on my lap. It’s like he knows, the little stinker. Monty will sleep on our bed during the day, but when he settles in for the night he has to be in an enclosed space to feel comfortable. Our water bed has a little overhang and the blankets hang down to the floor around that. Inside this little blanket tunnel I put a long body pillow I wasn’t using. Monty sleeps in this blanket tunnel or in his room (he has his own room) in a little cat bed that’s like a tent– enclosed on top and on three sides. If he’s keeping me up he gets put in his room but sometimes he asks to be put to bed in his room and even seems to prefer his door being closed. If the weather is stormy he gets scared and has to be in the blanket tunnel by us. He has never ever slept on top of the bed or out in the open. I think it goes back to his days as a feral kitten. I’m sure the mom always made sure the kittens were well hidden when they slept. Because we always put Monty in his room at night for the first couple years of his life he is not as nocturnal as most cats. Alone and bored he just learned to go to sleep. Also, I’m often home during the day for at least part of the day so I try to keep him busy and wear him out during the day. He goes to sleep between seven and nine p.m as we do. But he can’t stay asleep until 4:45 like we do. The best he can do is 4 a.m. and I will give him breakfast at four. If he’s up earlier he gets put in his room until breakfast time at 4:45.

            • It is interesting that he needs to sleep under cover. He needs something over his head etc. This probably does go back to a den in his early years as you say. Charlie sleeps on my bed (on top of the duvet), always against me to keep warm. I have to move him against his wishes to have a pee. He’ll moan about it.

  3. I think he was hissing at the bird. Not that there wasn’t some growling to defend his prey initially, but once he knew I was not going to take it from him he was friendly toward me and hissing at the bird. Too bad I don’t have a video. It was interesting.

    • Walter isn’t a great hunter like Jozef so if he ever catches a mouse he is very possessive of it, he growls at Jo if he goes near. I think this is another deepest instinct from the days of the wild, growling and hissing are saying ‘Keep off, this is MINE’
      Jo will play for so long with his catch and if he’s feeling generous will leave the mouse alive for Walter, maybe he thinks he needs more pracice lol
      It is sad for the mice but where we live we would be over run from the embankment opposite, if ours and the other neighbourhood cats didn’t catch them.
      It’s the law of Nature and not for us to interfere.
      Ruth I had to laugh at Monty hissing at the bird, he obviously loves you so much, even though he didn’t want you to have his bird he didn’t want to upset you either so he redirected his aggression as cats do.


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