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The inherited feeding behavior of domestic and feral cats as wild cats

Domestic cats are included as their hunting behavior when allowed to be expressed is exactly the same as a small ground dwelling wild cat. As is now well known, the diet of feral and domestic cats is almost exclusively carnivorous. If feral cats are feeding normally and not scavenging on human rubbish their diet comprises primarily small mammals and includes birds, reptiles and insects normally in that sort of order of priority. Prey items are determined by what is available to the cat and varies by geographical location and season.

Feline hunting is in their DNA. Image: PoC.

Some prey is tastier than others

Mice and and less often rats are caught by feral cats but not always eaten. It is suggested that they are less palatable i.e. less tasty to the feral cat than their preferred prey which is voles and young rabbits and hares. Shrews are said to be the least palatable to feral cats because although they are caught they are rarely eaten according to a study by Bradshaw and Thorpe in 1992.

Would a cat attack a rabbit? Picture: PoC

Hunting sequence

The hunting sequence of feral cats and small wild cats is often initiated by the cat’s attention being attracted by motion of a prey-sized object. Feral cats have two main hunting strategies namely to wait to ambush prey as it leaves a burrow or a den and to slowly stalk prey with a final charge and pounce (Fitzgerald and Turner 2000).

In the latter, the cat walks forward slowly looking and listening and stops sometimes to concentrate upon the possible location of a prey due to their sight or hearing being stimulated. With respect to the former form of hunting, the cat will identify suitable prey and wait outside for example the burrow of a rodent while keeping its body still and staring at the entrance. When the animal appears the cat attacks while waiting for it to move away from the den’s entrance.

Killing methods

Feral and domestic cats usually kill with a bite to the neck which severs the spinal cord. They use their forepaws to hold larger prey down and to pull the prey from a site or refuge.

The neck bite as described is not the only form of killing method. I can confirm this by watching my domestic cat kill a pigeon. He employs the classic big cat suffocating bite of large prey. He bites into the prey’s neck from the underside not from the back of the neck and the animal is suffocated. It surprised me to see my cat killing this way. It was not a pleasant experience but I could not stop it. Before killing he uses the stalking method getting as close as he can to a pigeon in my back garden and then pounces (I often save them). This gives the pigeon hardly enough time to take off. Sometimes he will grab the bird from the air. A struggle ensues, feathers will be lost and the bird will escape. He also kills mice employing the other technique as described above which is to watch and wait until the mice emerge from the burrow. The bird catching technique is mimicked in play by kittens when they reach up with both paws and grab a toy.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves that the cat might use their whiskers to feel the prey’s neck to help judge the exact position where their canine teeth pierce the spine to snap it. It is that precise. The whiskers are used like fingers at dusk and dawn and at night to help locate the spot between the vertebra.

My Gabriel caught this bird (a sparrow?) and I saved it and placed it outside but he he found it again and killed it.

Bring prey home – domestic cat

For domestic cats, prey is either consumed near where it was killed or it is brought home either dead or alive where it might be played with before being killed and eaten. A domestic cat will tend to bring their prey back to a core site within the home which they consider to be the centre of their home range. For my cat it is under my bed which is on the ground floor incidentally. I think this is the case because a cat owner’s bed is a “scent soaker” to use the words of Jackson Galaxy. It is an area where the scent of the human companion is very strong which makes a cat feel more secure.

Australian cat hunting. Image: PoC.

Birds

Catching a bird, incidentally, is generally much harder than catching a mouse for a domestic or feral cats. Therefore the bird is not prioritised as a prey animal which somewhat flies in the face of the claims of ornithologists who would like to portray the image of domestic and feral cats prioritising birds.

Domestic cat hunting. Image: PoC.

Inherited skill needs sharpening up

Domestic and feral cats are born with the innate skill to hunt. It does not need to be trained into them. It is part of their DNA and inherited. However, they need to practice it and this occurs at an early age on instruction by their mother. The mother will bring live prey back into the den allowing the offspring to kill it having watched her beforehand. When they are older they will go out with their mother to hunt together and further learn from her. By observing what food their mother eats kittens learn what is safe to eat and establish a strong drive to consume the same foods (Batterson 2000).

How wild cat feeds tells us how we should feed domestic cats

An important way to decide how to feed domestic cats is to know that small wild cats primarily feed on small mammals and they need to make several kills daily. Therefore we need to provide several small meals daily to mimic the wild environment. I would argue that as many as five and more meals should be provided daily of an appropriate size. This is why wet food pouches and sachets should be of the smaller size.

We know that in the small wild cats modify their hunting and feeding patterns to reflect the availability of food namely the abundance of prey. They regulate the amount they eat to maintain a set weight under normal conditions. The frequency of feeding decreases and the meal size increases if prey become scarcer resulting in a consistent food intake.

Obesity – failure to regulate weight

An unexpected pattern of domestic cat behaviour has developed over recent years in that they have failed to regulate their weight. Most people have read about the epidemic of obesity among domestic cats. This is due to overfeeding and under exercising. We don’t know which is the biggest factor. It may in part be due to dry cat food which is unnatural which might confuse the ability of a domestic cat to regulate their weight.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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