on the prowl: prey drive and hunting behaviors in cats
In the veterinary business, quiet days are few and far between; pets just like to keep us on our toes!
However, I remember a particularly quiet day in practice early on in my career. It was spring time, so we were practically overrun with kittens for adoption, and one of the technicians had set up an exam room for them with a baby gate at the door. This allowed the kittens to run and play with the extra bonus of allowing passersby to observe. If you’re ever having a bad day, watching kittens play is priceless therapy!
When kittens play, they’re actually honing their instincts and testing out their prey drive. Cats are born with a chasing instinct, and they perfect these skills by testing them out on their litter mates. They learn how to adjust their speed and timing depending on how fast their prey (their unsuspecting brothers and sisters) are moving, and they learn to calculate distance to obtain the perfect pounce. All of these skills are associated with their prey drive, which is instinct.
Prey drive is different from hunting behavior in cats, which is learned. While kittens are born with the instinct to chase, the same cannot be said for hunting. In the wild, cats are taught to hunt by their mothers. First, she will simply bring home her own food and eat it in front of her kittens, who are likely still nursing. After a while, the kittens will join her in eating what she brings home. Eventually, mom will just bring food for the kittens to eat on their own. This can occur in domestic cats, too, and will explain the “presents” of dead mammals or birds left at your doorstep (or even worse--at your feet!).
Hunting skills start to take shape when mom brings home injured prey and kills it in front of the kittens. Kittens, like human babies, are naturally curious and equally observant. While they are watching mom, they are picking up on behaviors that they will need in order to survive. Mom will bring home injured prey for the kittens to kill, too. These slow moving targets make it a little easier for novice hunters. Eventually, the family gets to go on a hunt in the wild together, and the kittens can perfect the skills they will need for life on their own.
Of course, most cats live the high life these days and don’t have the need to hunt for their food. This doesn’t mean that their prey drive doesn’t need to be exercised, though! That prey drive is an instinct for them, and without the ability to express it, you may notice inappropriate behaviors. Play aggression, attacking owner’s hands and feet, and chasing imaginary prey up the curtains may be linked to prey drive in your cat.
To keep everyone sane, be sure to engage your cat in plenty of play. Pick toys that can substitute for your cat’s favorite prey. Feathers on a string mimic birds and are a popular toy at my house, but other cats prefer toy mice that they can bat across the floor and scurry after. Laser pointers also give your cat the chance to run, chase, jump, and pounce.
Whatever your cat’s prey preference is, try to work in some playtime every day. Play reduces behavior problems and provides much needed exercise for indoor cats, who tend to be overweight. For outdoor cats who already know how to hunt, consider adding a bell to their collars to warn unsuspecting song birds and small mammals of their potential impending doom.