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Why Do Cats Play With Their Prey Before Killing Them?

Prior to completing the kill, cats frequently play with mice and other prey such as birds, insects, and other small animals.

Many are perplexed as to why cats exhibit this peculiar behavior, despite its frequency. It appears superfluous and harsh to toy with and torture the victim as opposed to executing a swift murder.

So, why do they act in this manner? Let's investigate this activity further and attempt to comprehend the hunting activities of a cat in "Why Do Cats Play with Their Prey Before Killing Them?" by BestForPets (bestforpets.org).

Why Don't Cats Just Kill Their Prey?

Even when tamed and kept indoors, the hunting instincts of a cat remain quite evident. Any little moving object will trigger their predatory instinct. As a result of natural selection, cats are diligent and very successful hunters.

In the 1970s, researchers began investigating this behavior in an effort to identify why cats feel the need to play with their prey before completing the murder. This investigation uncovered really surprising findings.

Facts about Cats Playing With Their Pray

The Larger the Prey, The Longer the Play

Cats played with larger prey far longer than smaller prey. Specifically, rats were maintained longer than mice. It was determined that the larger the prey animal, the greater the risk it posed to the cat.

This is likely related to the necessity to wear out larger prey so that they provide less of a threat during the kill. The more the prey’s exhaustion and disorientation, the less likely they are to effectively defend themselves and injure the cat.

The hungrier the cat, the faster the kill

Also, it was noticed that the hungrier a cat was, the faster it killed its prey. There is a common misconception among owners that their cat hunts because it is hungry, but this is not always the case. They have become opportunistic hunters.

Domestic cats have around a 30% success rate on each hunt. Instead of merely hunting when they are hungry, cats will hunt whenever the chance presents itself in order to support themselves.

Cats are well-adapted to consuming smaller amounts of food more frequently, as opposed to consuming huge amounts of food at a single session.

The frequency of playing with prey was significantly greater when a cat was actively seeking an opportunity, as opposed to when it was currently hungry.

Not All Games End in Death

Importantly, this study demonstrated that not all contacts with prey species resulted in mortality. In addition to being adept hunters, cats are also quite playful and love cerebral stimulation.

Some cats were reported to play with their victims rather than kill them. Obviously, the target animal is unaware of this and is in survival mode.

A Cat's Hunting Strategies

Cats’ hunting methods vary based on the circumstances they find themselves in and the opportunities that present themselves. Typically, they employ three distinct tactics. Let’s check it out:

  • Ambush:

The widely identifiable ambush hunting tactic begins with the cat crouching to hide itself and focusing solely on the victim.

They will quietly wait and remain hidden until the appropriate moment, at which point they will pounce on their unsuspecting target.

  • Stalk:

The stalking approach concludes with a pounce. When they approach their prey in the crouched stance, they may need to pause multiple times to retain their cover. Once your cat is within striking distance, it will tuck its hind legs under itself and pounce.

  • Fish:

You may notice that you are dealing with a true fisherman. Certain cats utilize water sources for hunting.

To do this, they will scoop the fish out of the water with their paw. Some water-tolerant cats may even swim directly into the water to seize their prey.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats

Cats have comparable inherent hunting instincts. Yet, there may be changes in the impact of hunting habits between indoor and outdoor cats.

  • Indoor Cats

Completely inside cats are more prone to chase mice, rats, or any other animal that enters the home. In addition, families with hamsters, mice, rats, birds, rabbits, reptiles, or any other tiny creature that can be overwhelmed by a cat are at risk.

Some indoor cats who have been reared indoors since they were kittens may lack the same hunting instincts as their outdoor counterparts. Yet, some will be as effective as those with outside access. It is not uncommon for some indoor cats to have a diminished predatory instinct.

  • Outdoor Cats

Free-roaming outdoor cats will be considerably more difficult to control. While they are off by themselves and wandering the neighborhood, outdoor cats are alone.

Because of this, survival instincts will be considerably stronger. You may observe that they are more ardent hunters, and they may even occasionally present you with their kills.

4 Things You Can Try to Minimize Hunting

Some cat owners may find the hunting impulse bothersome. Punishment is never recommended for normal behavior.

But, there are a few things you may do that can assist redirect their hunting tendency. This can assist minimize the hunting of tiny animals.

1. Reroute using Play

Playing often with your cat is one of the most effective methods for discouraging natural hunting tendency.

Ensure that you have an assortment of toys and set aside time to play with your cat. This is not only useful for redirecting your cat’s behavior, but it is also beneficial for their general health and happiness.

2. Ensure Appropriate Nutritional Requirements Are Meet

Cats are instinctual and opportunistic hunters; yet, if their nutritional requirements are not satisfied, they will search for food. Ensure that your indoor or outdoor cat has food that is appropriate for their age, size, and level of activity. Smaller, more frequent meals can also be beneficial.

3. Try on a Collar

Using a collar with a bell is one technique to discourage hunting. While the cat is in motion, a bell will sound to alert the target animal. This will hinder your covert hunting abilities and increase the likelihood that your victim will escape.

Use a break-away collar, since you do not want your cat to become entangled and maybe injured by a collar that becomes caught or trapped.

4. Retain Them Indoors Throughout Certain Hour

Typically, cats hunt around dawn, dusk, and at night. Prey is typically more active during these hours, causing cats to be more active during these hours as well. This maximizes their likelihood of a successful hunt.

Consider keeping your cat home during these hours to prevent excessive hunting. Mice prefer to come out at night and scurry across countertops, leaving you with few options for extermination.

To avoid attracting the attention of your cat, ensure that traps are placed in safe, secure settings.


As clarified in “Why Do Cats Play with Their Prey Before Killing Them?” by BestForPets (bestforpets.org), it is crucial not to attribute human characteristics to your cat.

Cats do not play with their prey because they are nasty, but their hunting behaviors have evolved to make them great predators.

Your cat has no intention of torturing its victim, despite the fact that its behavior may appear harsh and be difficult to observe. Rather, it is demonstrating a predatory response.

Author Image

Dr. Deborah Fletcher

Deborah R. Fletcher, DVM, is a skilled veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience dealing with companion and exotic animals. She has experience caring for a variety of animals, including household cats and dogs, reptiles, birds of prey, and even primates. Dr. Fletcher is a valuable part of the BestForPets team, where she contributes to their aim of providing pets and their owners with the finest possible treatment and services.

Veterinarian (DVM) Dr. Deborah Fletcher


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