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”.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

27 thoughts on “The Cat Torments His Prey”

  1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    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.

    1. 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.

      1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

        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…

    1. 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.

    2. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

      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.

      1. 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.

          1. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

            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.

            1. 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. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

    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.

    1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

      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.

  4. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

    Monty killed a bird two days ago. I tried to film him with it but the video did not turn out well and by the time I tried to film him he was just playing with it, not doing the thing that had me so fascinated.

    It was a sunny day and my meeting that morning was cancelled last minute. I put on old clothes and let Monty out again. I was putting my shoes on and I heard a commotion, looked up and Monty had a bird in his mouth. I ran around after him, one shoe on one shoe off, trying to get him to release it. As he ran growling from me he actually killed the bird. I wanted either for him to let it go to catch it again, allowing it to escape, or to just outright kill it more quickly. I brought out a plate with a little food on it thinking he would release the bird for the treat. He did and that is when I discovered that in his running from me with the bird it had actually expired.

    After he ate he hissed at the bird. I thought he was hissing at me, but no, his displeasure was directed at the bird. He played with it then, but growling at it and pausing to hiss. He would allow me to pick up his kill and toss it so he could catch it again. He was not hissing at me. I thought perhaps that he didn’t like the mouth full of feathers he kept getting when biting his prey. Maybe he was trying to eat it and wanted it to be easier to do so, hence the hiss of displeasure. He buried his nose in the bird’s feathers and then hissed and growled at it, attacking it ferociously, but why such hostility toward prey. It was like he hated that bird, like it was not his prey, but his enemy.

    We have crows that bother Monty quite a bit, all gathering and caring loudly at him, dive bombing him. Was his attack on this little bird an expression of how he feels about those larger birds attacking him? Did he take out his frustration with the crows on his kill? I have never seen a cat hiss at prey the way he did. It was most definitely hostility directed at his kill, not at me. Although I initially tried to separate him from his kill once I determined it was dead I encouraged him to play with it. Might as well at that point. He and I were playing together with it and he was friendly toward me, even rubbing against me after I gave him his treat, but hissing right at the little dead bird like he hated it.

    1. Nice little story of domestic cat life. I wonder whether he was growling at the dead bird. My feeling is that he was growing and hissing at anything and anybody who might get in between him and his prey. It was just instinctive behavior to protect a kill – a general signal “To Whom It May Concern”.

  5. Loving cats means accepting them the way they are and maybe it’s not nice seeing cats play with live mice or whatever but that’s what cats do whether we like it or not and cats are not to blame.
    We humans have many many more upsetting habits to upset others than cats ever do and we don’t just follow our instincts,most of us can think and reason what we do.
    What about scientists knowingly torturing animals in labs,what about slaughterhouse workers torturing “food animals”

  6. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    Cats need some hunting type of amusement in their lives and playing with their prey provides that.
    A cat not hungry still catches rodents by instinct because that’s what they were born to do.
    Humans interfered with Nature and domesticated the cat, but we can never OWN the whole cat.

    1. I believe a lot of people don’t want to keep a cat, the whole cat. They want a cat-like animal that is cute and fury but without all predatory instincts. That is why people modify the domestic cat. But the domestic cat is a top flight predator. There are none that are better.

      1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

        Exactly Michael! They want a cat to be their idea of what he should be, cute and furry and some even want a cat clawless, it’s very wrong!
        Why should a cat be anything other than what he was born to be and has the right to be!

  7. This is a very interesting article Michael and something I have questioned a long time myself. It’s great to hear a fresh view on the subject. I don’t think it’s totally ok what they are doing but I do blame humans rather than the cats themselves. We gave them few mice and rusty hunting skills.

    When Red was young both his mum and granma would bring him mice to finish off. He learnt quickly to be careful after I saw him on a few occasions trying to flick off a mouse that had bitten into is paw and was hurting him quite badly. I saw with my own 2 eyes his learning process day after day. He learn’t to keep a safe distance and try to kill it without getting bitten – and that involved a certain amount of things, not an immediate kill. He backed right off after being bitten. He learnt to bat the mouse from a safe distance to avoid getting bitten again.

    On another note – I am going to a marrocan restaurant tonight where lives a 23 year old cat that I rememeber since I was quite young and who remained in the restaurant through 4 owners. I’d like to take a photo of him. He is very sweet. I hope he is still alive. Tabby.

    And I may have this painting for you by my grandmother of lions 🙂

    1. I am more inclined to believe until the mouse is dead it is out of self protection and after when throwing around the dead mouse it is extension of play. Just my view.

      1. I agree it a safer way to kill. Cats instinctively protect themselves when hunting because killing prey can be dangerous for the predator.

        The lack of practice makes it all the more important for the domestic cat to kill safely. That and the lack of opportunity for lots of cats to express natural drives and desires means the kill is extended and looks cruel.

  8. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    Of course it’s total instinct that cats play with their prey before killing them, they have the thrill of the hunt, the chase and then the catch and they naturally want to prolong that feeling of power and success.
    They aren’t in control of the other parts of their lives any more, we are!
    You are right Michael wild cats kill their prey immediately because they are hungry and need to eat.
    Since cats became domesticated most are well fed and don’t need to hunt to survive but their deepest instincts remain. If we don’t accept cats with that instinct and all, then we don’t accept and love the whole cat as it’s as much a part of them as the loving companion part.

    1. If we don’t accept cats with that instinct and all, then we don’t accept and love the whole cat

      Absolutely. Playing with prey is natural and normal under the circumstances. People should accept it as part of the cat as you say.

  9. The cat is a miniature version of its big cousins, the “Big Cats”.Thanks to television the best of wild-life programmes can be viewed in the comforts of our home rather than trekking through jungles.A “Big Cat” with cubs behaves in the same manner as a cat playing with a mouse, slowly killing its prey which to us humans is absolutely cruel and torturous.This form of hunting is well filmed amongst Cheetahs in the African Savannahs where the mother cheetah on catching a small black buck doesn’t kill it but lets her cubs do the killing which is a slow process.This same behaviour exists in cats which is definitely cruel to us humans but a normal way of living in nature and the forests. As for cat haters, well, they will always remain cat haters!

    1. We agree that if we love or like cats, we need to like the whole cat as Ruth says, even the bits that we find hard to accept, which, is ironic seeing as humans are by far the cruelest creatures on the planet!

      1. michael,go back to your post about the bombing of boston,read the first just said what i was originally trying to make other people understand.

        1. I completely agree with you when you say humans are senseless killers. Sometimes I look out window and say, “we’re mad” or “it’s madness”.

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