Your cat’s hunting technique explained

You walk into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, and there it is: the bloody remains of what used to be a pigeon, your floor covered in feathers. Hunting is the one thing about our cats that often leaves us frustrated. Not only because of the gory mess we sometimes have to clean up, but also because we feel sorry for the cat’s prey! However, hunting comes instinctively to your cat. When she brings you her prey as a gift, it means she has accepted you as a member of the family and is trying to prove her hunting skills by sharing the prey she has caught with you.

Starting young

Kittens are programmed from birth to chase. Through play they develop the co-ordination and timing needed to successfully capture prey. They learn the speed they need according to the speed of moving objects, and they learn to gauge distance by pouncing. In this way, playing gets them experienced in making these judgments.

From around five weeks, kittens are introduced to solid food. In nature, this will be prey caught by the mother. She will bring the dead prey and consume it in front of the kittens. Soon after they learn to join in. The initial hunting reflex is stimulated by the mother when she brings live prey they can experiment with. The kittens can practise their skills and learn to kill the wounded prey themselves. Some skills are developed by watching and imitating the mother or other siblings. They trust their mother and follow her example unquestioningly, which is why mother-kitten relationships are so important. Gradually more prey is brought home and the kittens become more skilled. Finally, the kittens will accompany the mother and learn to hunt and kill completely on their own. Kittens who grow up without mothers still express this hunting instinct, which shows it is instinctive and natural behaviour.

Built for the kill

Felidae are the most highly developed carnivorous hunters of all mammalian species, with particularly keen senses of hearing, sight and smell. A cat’s body is designed, from the tips of her ears to the tip of her tail, to hunt.

Hearing The ears are developed to catch the high-pitched frequencies made by rodents. The rounded shape of the ear funnels allow them to pick up even the softest or highest sound. The ears can pivot 180 degrees and move independently of each other.

Sight Cats have amazing vision, and their eyes face forward, making depth perception possible. This allows their vision to overlap and increases the field of vision (200 degrees) that assists accurate decision-making when they hunt or have to judge distance. Cats have excellent night vision, partly the result of the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina that allows in light, allowing the cat to hunt in poor light.

Touch A cat has about 24 vibrissae (whiskers) on the upper lip on either side of her nose. There are also a few on each cheek, tufts over the eyes, bristles on the chin, on the cat’s inner ‘wrists’, and at the back of the legs. Their whiskers are very sensitive: they can sense changes in the flow of air, pick up tiny vibrations, allow them to recognise the outlines of prey, and help to determine if a hole is big enough for them to get through.

Mouth The jaw and teeth are specially adapted for killing. The shorter muzzle helps to deliver a stronger and wide bite. The sharp ridges on the tongue (papillae) are made from keratin and assist in stripping flesh off bones.

Claws The pads and fur on the cat’s feet muffle her steps, helping her stalk prey silently. Cats can rotate their wrists, allowing for a broad range of movement, like grasping, climbing and swiping.

Spine Cats are very flexible and true sprinters and acrobats. They can rotate half of their spines about 180 degrees, and they can jump many times their own height.

Tail The tail works as a counterbalance as your cat walks along narrow fences, high branches or even when she is perched at home, helping her to accurately pounce on prey and maintain her balance.

How she does it

When the cat spots her prey, her entire body will be standing at attention, ears pointing forward. As she stalks her prey, the tail will be lowered with the rest of the body. All senses focused, she will crawl forward in slow motion, every muscle articulated. When she pounces on the prey, it will be a split-second reaction to end the hunt successfully. Once the prey is immobilised with the cat’s claws, the only thing left to do is sever the spinal cord for a quick, clean kill. This might take a few tries, giving the illusion of a cat toying with or even torturing her prey.

When you are concerned about your cat’s hunting

Unfortunately, most cats will hunt, unless they are kept indoors. Always remain calm and act graciously when she brings you her gift. She will be very proud of her exceptional skill, so praise your hunter and dispose of the prey when she’s not looking. Offer her a treat, a special toy or catnip. She only did what comes naturally.

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