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Do Cats Really Play With Their Prey Before Killing Them? Behaviour Explained

It’s easy for us to forget our cute, fluffy cats are natural-born killers. Perfectly evolved to chase, stalk, and hunt small animals to devour them, even our domestic cats can often bring home their prey.

Cats are often thought to be malicious as they often play with their prey before ending their life. While this certainly appears to us as a cruel act, the behavior is not born out of evil intent but a survival instinct that has long been embedded into their genes from their wild ancestors.

Playing with their prey is not only to ensure survival. There can be a handful of other reasons for this behavior. Let’s delve into the feline psyche to discover the intent behind this strange act of torture!


A Game of Stamina

Felines are not the only animal driven by instinct: their prey is also. When prey is cornered or chased, they can enact a fight or flight response. If they choose to fight, a bite, scratch, or kick can cause some harm to the predatory cat.

This is especially true for your pet cats’ wild cousins who can hunt animals much larger than them. A lion poorly positioned behind a zebra can risk a fatal kick to the head. While our domestic cats tend to hunt animals much smaller than them, like birds and mice, these small animals can still deliver some painful bites.

The act of “playing” with their prey is a tactic to tire them out. Prey that is taunted for some time will lose energy and become disorientated. When the cat decides to deliver the final blow, the risk of a counter-attack is lowered if the prey is weak.

a maine coon cat hunting a mouse outdoor
Image Credit: greg.visuals, Shutterstock

Size Matters

This predatory behavior has been studied extensively to make some pretty cool discoveries. They found that the larger the prey, the longer the cat would play with it. For example, your pet cat may play with a sizable rat longer than they would a wee mouse.

This backs up the theory they do so to tire out the prey. Larger prey can pose more risk to injure a predator, so it’s more essential to tire them out. Additionally, larger prey can have better stamina and resilience, taking longer to become exhausted.

The other hunting behavior of throwing prey up into the air is also explained similarly. Your cat may look like they are simply having fun throwing a mouse around (they probably are), but it is also another way to weaken the prey before the kill.

Cats Just Wanna Have Fun!

It’s often thought that cats play with their prey because it’s fun. Of course, this simply makes the cat seem heartless and evil! Even though there is a solid behavioral reason why they play before the killing, it is likely that it is also quite fun for them.

We, humans, often anthropomorphize animals or assign them human emotions. But cats experience “fun” differently from us. Your domestic cat’s idea of fun is having their senses stimulated and getting opportunities to use their natural hunting behaviors.

black and white cat leaning on a tree hunting its prey
Image Credit: Kapa65, Pixabay

A Well-Fed Feline

Despite seeming fearsome and powerful, most cat species actually have a low success rate for each of their hunting attempts. Because of this, they tend to be opportunistic hunters, going after prey whenever they see the chance instead of when they are hungry.

If they simply hunted when they were hungry, it may take some time to satisfy that hunger. So, if they hunt when they see an opportunity, they can ensure they will have food whenever hunger strikes.

Our domestic cats at home are extremely well fed and never have to worry about where their next meal comes from. Despite this, their hunting instincts will still be triggered when they see a mouse run by.

When they catch it, they realize they’re not even hungry, so instead of killing it, they can get the maximum amount of fun and stimulation by keeping it alive for a while longer.

Natural Born Killers?

If you’ve watched as many documentaries as we have, you’ll know that many wild cat species teach their young how to hunt and kill. For our domestic cats, they will teach their young to manipulate humans until kibble rains from the sky!

For some of our cats, killing prey seems to be a natural instinct that they work out independently. But not all cats may be so in tune with these instincts. Your cat may learn how to hunt from playing and pouncing on their littermates, but they may not have learned how to kill.

Some cats may play with their prey because they simply don’t know what to do with it after catching it!

cat carrying a dead mouse
Image Credit: Markos-Loizou, Shutterstock

A Teaching Moment

When your cat bursts through the cat flap with a mouse tucked into its jaws, still alive, it can cause you to panic a bit! Even worse is when they drop the live mouse inside and let it run around.

While it seems like they are playing with their prey, they may be trying to teach you. We’ve all heard the theory that cats view humans as very large, hairless, and useless cats, right?

When they bring us live prey, they may be trying to show us how to catch and kill prey for ourselves. They are trying to give you an easy kill, thinking you are too useless to know how to catch your own food!

This can also explain why your cat meows loudly when they catch prey. They are trying to get your attention to come and interact with them and the prey for a “teaching moment.”

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Final Thoughts

Ultimately, cats are enigmatic creatures, and we will likely never truly understand them. A lot of research and speculation has dissected their behaviors to learn why they do what they do.

We can draw some pretty sound conclusions from this, and it’s likely your cats playing with their prey isn’t an act of cruelty but rather a basic instinct they can’t control.

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Featured Image Credit: Stefan_Sutka, Shutterstock