Can you control your cat’s hunting behaviour?
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Can you control your cat’s hunting behaviour?

Cats
General

Cats and hunting - the two often go hand in hand. In the wild, cats are prolific hunters, and their origins as the domestic pets which we know and love today came about due to the symbiotic relationship between cats and people, as cats were seen to be beneficial housemates for keeping the number of rats and mice in any given area under control. Cats, in their turn, received access to a safe, warm place to live, their own territory, and a constant supply of live food there for the taking, plus the occasional prepared meal or treat if they were lucky.It’s no wonder, therefore, that when cats were prized for their hunting prowess for centuries, the domesticated pet cats that many of us keep today haven’t outgrown or evolved away from their genetic predisposition to hunt.The simple fact of the matter is that hunting is a natural behaviour for cats, and any potential cat owner should be aware of this fact and be able to deal with the consequences of it before they consider sharing their home with a feline. Some cats are much keener hunters than others, and some cats will show almost zero interest in hunting at all- but the problem is, it’s more or less impossible to tell which side of the coin any given cat or kitten will fall on until you get to know them! However, even if you understand that hunting is natural and normal in your cat, that doesn’t necessarily make it any more palatable, and dealing with the consequences of your cat’s kill (or sometimes, live gift) can be unpleasant. If your cat hunts and you are wondering if there is anything you can do about this to minimise the impact on both the local wildlife population and your household, read on for some insights into the hunting behaviours of cats and a few ideas on how to minimise their occurrence.

Why do cats hunt?

As mentioned, hunting is a totally natural behaviour in the cat, and many cats have an overwhelming drive and desire to hunt. You may have wondered, however, why sometimes your cat might bring in their prey amidst much fanfare and excitement, proudly depositing it in front of you and looking very pleased with themselves about it in the face of your distaste! While your cat may have misjudged your delight at receiving a dismembered bird or mouse as a gift, they are actually paying you a massive compliment by gifting you with their prey. They are essentially saying to you ‘look what I got for you!’ and offering you first dibs on their catch, much as wild pack-cats such as lions will follow a pecking order of who eats first, with the senior member of the herd (usually the alpha male cat) taking the first bite, regardless of which member of the pride made the kill.

Chasing and catching

While many cats like to hunt, or at least try to, not all cats are fast enough or committed enough to be able to successfully find and catch their potential prey. If your cat pursues prey but doesn’t manage to catch it, then half of your problem is solved- your cat will not have a discernable effect on the local wildlife population, nor bring a succession of kills into the home. You can maximise the chances of wildlife being able to get away from your cat and so minimise their chances of making a successful kill by trying a few different tricks.Putting a bell on your cat’s collar is one of the simplest and most effective ways of keeping wildlife out of your cat’s jaws- cats are stealth hunters, and being able to catch an unsuspecting bird or rodent depends greatly on their being able to creep up on their prey unannounced. If your cat jingles every time they move, then this will provide an early warning system for wildlife such as birds and rodents, who are much more likely to have the head start they need to be able to get away before your cat is close enough to pounce. If you feed birds in your garden, the bird table or feeding station can soon appear like a free pass to an all-you-can-eat buffet for a hunting cat, although cats are much more likely to successfully hunt and catch rodents than birds. Make sure that any feeding stations or tables cannot be scaled by your cat, and are far enough away from the ground or any trees your cat may be able to climb that your ferocious feline doesn’t find it easy to lie in wait for the impending arrival of your visiting birds.

Provide a diversion

A cat’s natural day to day life consists of short bursts of energy and concentration- such as that which they expend whilst hunting- interspersed with prolonged periods of sleep and lethargy. If you can encourage your cat to play around the home, or to simulate their hunting behaviour by encouraging them to chase toys, balls and other equipment, your cat may show a lesser propensity to go after live prey.

Make sure your cat is fed enough

Hunting is a natural cat instinct, and sometimes, even well fed cats will hunt. The challenge and eventual reward of chasing down and successfully catching a small rodent is much greater for your cat than harassing you into opening a can of food! But while sufficient feeding may not be enough to keep a prolific mouser from hunting, it is certainly true that not feeding enough will make your cat’s desire to hunt even greater.

Keep your cat in at night

Obviously, in order to be able to hunt prey, your cat requires access to it- and this means being outdoors. While keeping your cat as an indoor-only pet that is not allowed outside is of course one foolproof way to reduce hunting behaviours to zero, this is possibly rather extreme and unfair on your cat, when as mentioned, the potential to hunt is something which all cat owners should be aware of and prepared to deal with before making the commitment to keep a feline pet. But cats are mainly nocturnal, and generally hunt much more successfully at night than they do during the day. An acceptable compromise for cat and owner may consist of keeping your cat closed inside the house at night and letting them out again during the daylight hours.

Cat health and hunting

With the best will in the world, you may not be able to keep a committed feline hunter from going after prey. It may come as some consolation that as they age, your cat’s tendency to hunt will generally gradually decrease. One thing to bear in mind if your cat is a prolific hunter is that wild animals such as mice and rats are usually riddled with worms and other parasites, which are easily transmitted to your cat via ingestion. It is vital for the ongoing health and wellness of your cat to worm them on a regular basis, and if your cat catches and eats their prey on a regular basis, you may find that you have to increase their worming frequency to account for this (in consultation with your veterinary surgeon).

Human health and cat prey

Finally, don’t forget your own health when dealing with the spoils of your cat’s victories. As mentioned, rats, mice and other wild animals carry parasites and can spread disease. Don’t leave living rodents in your house in the hope that your cat will re-catch them later; they can be incredibly destructive to both food and property, and can chew through plastic and electrical cables with ease. Do not pick up a live rodent in your hands- they can, and often will, bite. Trap them in a container or trap used specially for the purpose, and dispose of them outside (far enough from your home that your cat will not immediately find them again and bring them back in)!Dispose of any ‘bodies’ safely, and make sure that your thoroughly wash and disinfect anything that the rodent or bird might have touched in your home, as well as of course thoroughly washing your hands after disposing of either a living or dead small animal.

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