Why does a kitten sometimes throw a toy into the air when playing?

A kitten will sometimes throw a toy into the air when playing as an instinctive fishing action. Some people think that when kittens do this day are creating a bird flying through the air which they then pounce on in play. But is far more likely to be the instinctive fishing action of a domestic cat. As they are not able to really fish, they do it with a toy that is available to them.

Kitten eyes up a ball which is going to be a pretend fish to throw into the air
Kitten eyes up a ball which is going to be a pretend fish to throw into the air. Photo: Image by sherwood from Pixabay
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A Dutch research project concluded that the scooping up of a fish from the water using what Dr. Desmond Morris describes as the “flip-up action” develops early in kittens without the need for them to learn this behavioural trait from their mother. They found that when kittens are allowed to hunt fish out of streams and ponds et cetera they do it regularly from their fifth week of life onwards. In the absence of their mother to teach them through observational learning, they become successful at this form of hunting by the age of seven weeks. So, it takes a bit longer if they do it instinctively as inherited in their DNA.

So, when a kitten throws a ball or other toy into the air when playing they are doing no more than fishing. It would be something that they might do if they were living in the wild near a pond.

Dr. Desmond Morris provides a nice insight into the three different ways cats hunt mice, birds or fish, which helps explain why kittens throw a toy into the air.

Most of us are familiar with the way domestic cats hunt mice. Essentially it is a stalk, pounce and trap process with the mouse eventually trapped under the cat’s front paws and then bitten to death. Cats can be inordinately patient waiting near a mouse den for one to emerge at which point they pounce.

With birds, they stalk and pounce but often the bird takes off rapidly. At this point the cat leaps, swiping at the bird with both paws. I’ve seen my cat do this with a pigeon. He was able to pull the pigeon down having grabbed it with his claws. He then killed the bird with a suffocating throat bite and not by the nape of the neck vertebra-breaking bite.

Although people can see their cats hunting mice and birds, they rarely see them hunting fish which may account for the misconception about kittens playing with toys. Cats wait at the water’s edge. When a fish approaches, they slide their paw under the fish’s body and flip it out of the water. The fish is thrown over the cat’s shoulders onto the ground. The cat turns, pounces and bites the fish to death. If the fish is too large, the cat might use both front feet to grab the fish from underneath.

Both techniques entail flipping the fish into the air over the cat. This is the action that we see when a kitten sometimes throws a toy into the air when playing. Kids will do this over and over again and each time they pounce on the toy when it has fallen to the ground to kill it.


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