NO STUDY OF the cat would be complete without a look at how it hunts – in the context of this article it will give us a better understanding of how all of that amazing feline equipment is put to work and how the animal spends its time when hunting. The ‘domestication’ of the cat is based on its hunting abilities – it took advantage of a concentration of rodents around stores of grain. The cat is still valued for its hunting abilities in some places, but today, in most cat-owning homes in the UK and other western countries, this is probably the least appreciated of the cat’s talents. There are two reasons for this lack of appreciation: first, most people do not understand the fantastic design of the cat and its prowess in hunting; second, most owners these days don’t actually want their cat to hunt. To be a little more accurate, most don’t mind if the cat kills rats or mice (though they would prefer them not to bring their prey indoors, especially if it is not dead), but don’t want to see their pet feline killing birds or other small and furry animals. Our expectations for our cats these days are not only that they live alongside us and our other pets but also that they live peacefully alongside our birds and small mammals
We have all seen pictures of cats sitting with mice climbing all over them or birds perched on their heads nibbling their ears. While their owners may swear that the cat will not harm its small companion because it has known it since birth, I for one would not want to lay even a small bet on it. It is argued that if the cat grows up with these smaller creatures – potential dinner, after all – it will know they are part of the family group and not harm them. I still wouldn’t leave them alone together. Stimulate a cat to follow the movement of the right size in the right direction and it will automatically go into a predatory sequence and will have that bite-size morsel in its mouth before even the cat knows it. Millions of years of evolution have created a near- perfect hunter and much of the cat’s success lies in the development of automatic or reflex responses that don’t even require thinking time. A cat is fast – fast enough to catch a flying bird or a scampering mouse – and, of course, it is clever. I am not the first parent to rush around the local pet shops looking for a certain color of hamster to replace the one that has just been extracted from its clip-together tubing tunnel complex by a shrewd pet cat!
Cats may have to survive through hunting alone if they are not in the vicinity of man and his food, either indirectly via scavenging or by being fed directly. Cats that have been fed may or may not hunt. The control center for hunting is different from that for hunger. Therefore, turning off hunger control does not necessarily turn off the desire to hunt. No doubt a hungry cat will be a keener hunter, but a full cat may also continue to pursue its prey. Cats will still hunt on a full stomach, perhaps because they usually survive on frequent small meals and so need to keep alert for opportunities. Cats given free access to food will eat between seven and twenty small meals a day.
Most of us are unaware of the strategies our cats use to hunt – they simply go out through the cat-flap and reappear sometime later, perhaps carrying a small body of some sort. We may simply find presents on the bed or in the cat’s bowl, or come down to the kitchen in the morning and find it awash with feathers. The cat must be able to hear and identify the sounds of its prey from quite a distance away, to be able to pinpoint the likely position of the prey and then get close enough to it to grab it quickly. From a very young age, the cat begins to learn how to interpret all the messages coming to it from its ears, eyes and other sensory organs. It must learn how to approach different kinds of prey and how to get close enough to be effective in its final pounce. It is not built for pursuit, so stealth and prediction are important. Cats do employ different hunting strategies, both generally and individually. Some cats move around looking for prey or listening for what they might just come across – this is called the M strategy (M standing for ‘mobile’!). As owners, we are probably not aware that cats are even listening as we watch them in the garden. However, we have probably seen our cats undertaking the second approach, the S strategy, where S stands for ‘sitting and waiting’. How often have you looked out and seen the cat sitting and gazing into space, seemingly just daydreaming the afternoon away. If you looked more closely, you would probably find a small burrow or a tiny pathway or run that is frequently used by one of the garden’s little inhabitants. The cat will position itself outside the burrow and sit silently and patiently, staring at a likely spot until something comes out or until the cat itself becomes bored and moves on to a more likely spot. If something does come out, it will wait until it has moved a little distance from the burrow entrance before moving forward and pouncing to prevent it going back in.
Cats can employ both these techniques together (they are not bothered by scientists’ neat classifications!) depending on the type of prey they are after. Birds on a bird table may require a sit-and- wait strategy; birds feeding off the ground may require a very careful M approach, as birds can see all around them and are constantly checking for danger. The cat must use all of its movement-control systems to glide over the ground without attracting attention with sharp or large movements. It may slip in a couple of runs if the bird hops out of sight and then freeze again – similar to the children’s game 1-2-3 Red Light – stopping still if the subject of its gaze turns around to look in that direction.
Some cats don’t bother to hunt birds; others become expert at this 3D hunt. Apparently, cats have a natural period of inactivity – a waiting moment – just before they pounce. This is not conducive to bird hunting, because the upwardly mobile prey will often fly away at this point. When we looked at the cat’s senses and its physical attributes and automatic control sequences for hunting, it became clear just how much finesse went into the hunting sequence – down to being able to position the prey precisely enough to slip a canine tooth between the vertebrae at the nape of the neck and sever the spinal cord, causing instant death. As owners, we would probably not dislike the cat doing all this killing so much if we knew that every animal died very quickly and painlessly. Unfortunately, not all cats kill all prey immediately. Some may still be learning their technique and these, probably younger cats, may play with the prey before it dies. Researchers have found that, although both sexes of cat will bring home prey, females will do this more frequently than males. This is understandable, because queens will bring home prey for kittens to eat or for them to practise their hunting techniques on once they have reached a certain age. Male cats have nothing to do with kittens so perhaps they are just bringing it into the den for safekeeping
Why do cats play with prey? Different research has suggested that the act of hunting fills the cat with tension. When it kills it is still ‘hyped up’ and needs to release this tension, which it does by playing. Researchers who carried out one study of tigers in captivity found that, if they made the tigers ‘hunt’ for their food by placing it at the top of a pole and making the big cats climb up and work to get it, the tigers would bring it down but then leave it for a while before they ate it. The theory is that they had to calm down from the adrenaline rush that accompanied the hunt and catch before they could eat the food. Female cats with kittens have been found to be much more efficient hunters than females without kittens – no doubt the motivation of four or five hungry mouths to feed, either by producing milk or by bringing home prey, serves to speed up hunts and make more successes of each attempt. Apparently, female cats with kittens are able to hear higher sounds than other cats. Perhaps this is so that they can pick up any distress cries of the kittens, but it may also be because they need to hear the sounds of small animals. Younger pet cats too are very enthusiastic about hunting. When we first let them outdoors they start to bring in insects and worms, which they have successfully sneaked up on and caught. They then progress to voles and mice as they become more confident and able to use their skills. From about a year on, they will hunt very enthusiastically and owners of young cats that like to hunt often despair in the first couple of years because of the number of small creatures their pets bring in. However, this enthusiasm does not usually persist at the same level after about three years. Some cats do keep it up, but many become less enthusiastic and prefer to sleep in the sun or watch the birds through the window when it is cold or wet outside. Cats seem to enjoy hunting and they are certainly highly motivated to partake in this activity. Their natural abilities are honed with practice and patience. We need to make sure that we do not underestimate cats’ need to hunt and be aware that we need to amuse the totally indoor cat which does not have the great outdoors as a playground for this innate activity.