Whether it’s chasing a wiggling piece of string across the floor or zooming around after a fishing rod toy, playfulness is one of the traits that owners often love in their cats. Whilst play can be a fun and important bonding exercise between cat and owner, it also forms an essential survival function for cats.

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As a predatory species, cats in the wild rely on catching prey to survive. Kittens are especially playful as they are learning to hunt and need to test out different methods of catching prey through trial and error.

Why do cats play with their prey?

Many people have seen cats playing with their prey and might perceive this to be cruel. However, this behaviour in cats is likely a survival mechanism and not done out of malice.

There are thought to be several reasons why playing with prey could be important for survival in cats, although more research is needed.

  • Firstly, it allows the cat to check if the prey is healthy, so they are less likely to eat prey that is poisoned or infected. Unhealthy prey is likely to be slow and lethargic, whereas prey that is quick to respond and run will be healthy and safe to eat.
  • Secondly, playing with prey tires it out before it is killed, which might reduce the chance that the prey may injure the cat. Cats will usually make the kill bite around the back of their prey’s neck to sever the spinal cord, so tiring it out means they are less likely to be on the receiving end of a vicious bite if their prey suddenly flips around. Research has shown that cats play with larger prey for longer, possibly as it takes more effort to tire them out. Cats that are hungry also tend to play with their prey for a shorter amount of time.

Why do cats leave their prey after killing it?

Many cat owners have experienced their cat bringing home a prey item and leaving it on the floor. People might assume that the killing of prey without eating it means cats are killing for the sake of killing, but this is unlikely to be the case. Instead, these behaviours are again linked to survival.

Cats are opportunistic hunters - in the wild they would be reliant on eating many small meals throughout the day, and so they have evolved to catch and kill prey whenever the chance arises. This stocking up on food to return to ensures that they won’t starve should food not be readily available the next time they are hungry.

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It is possible that some cats find hunting mentally and physically stimulating. Cat owners should play with their cats frequently to keep them entertained, short but frequent sessions to mimic natural hunting patterns are recommended, and owners may find this reduces true hunting behaviour.

Keeping cats well fed with a high-quality diet containing all their essential nutrients may also reduce the amount of hunting they carry out.

Find more tips on how to stop your cat hunting wildlife

Rae Foreman-Worsley is a feline behaviour and welfare specialist for Cats Protection

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Main image: Getty Images

Authors

Cats Protection is the UK's largest cat welfare charity and have experts in all aspects of feline welfare. They help around 200,000 cats and kittens every year thanks in no small part to their network of over 230 volunteer-run branches and over 30 centres.

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