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Why do cats hunt and how to reduce it?

Cats are predators and as such are instinctive hunters. They learn these skills from their mother in order to catch prey. As with other feline predators in the wild, cats hone their skills throughout life so that they can catch food and don’t go hungry. Here we share some advice on why cats hunt and how to reduce it.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


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Domestic cats have the same instincts as their wild relatives; we can see this when they chase and pounce on a toy. However, domestic cats are fed by their owners and therefore do not need to rely on catching food to eat. It is also important to protect wildlife and biodiversity wherever we live. For this reason, it is useful to consider how our cats affect wildlife populations, and how we can help support them by reducing our cats hunting.


Three reasons cats who are regularly fed still hunt

  1. A cat’s instinct to hunt is not directly related to hunger. Therefore, a well-fed cat will still have an impulse to hunt. Cats hunt alone and their success rate is only around 50%. If unowned cats waited until they were hungry to start a hunt, there’s a high chance they would starve. Cats are therefore opportunistic hunters as they will engage in predatory behaviour whenever they see prey, whether they are hungry or not.
  2. The quality of food that a cat is fed can have an affect on predatory behaviour. The diets of unowned cats tend to have a much higher protein content compared to owned cats. Therefore, cats that are fed a poor-quality diet will have a higher motivation to hunt in order to fulfil their nutritional needs.
  3. Cats are generalist hunters. This means that they tend to prey on a relatively wide range of prey species, based on availability. Unowned cats spend around 12 hours a day hunting, whereas owned cats spend about three hours or less per day. The smell, taste and physical characteristics of food all influence the appeal of food. Unowned free-ranging cats would eat small meals, grazing throughout the day (approx 10-20 times per day). Therefore, if an owned cat is being fed one type of commercial food, they may hunt to satisfy the preference for a variety of foods and for regular small meals.


Four ways to reduce your cat’s hunting

  1. Feed small, regular meals throughout the day; puzzle feeders provide further mental stimulation and make meals last longer. Although feeding cats can reduce the tendency to hunt, visual and auditory stimuli from prey will override considerations of appetite. This means that many well-fed cats will still hunt. However, they may not consume the food, or may manipulate it for longer before or after the kill.
  2. Make home more attractive to your cat; adding high resting areas, toys, litter trays and scratching posts may encourage them to stay indoors more. Adding litter trays, even for those cats that toilet outside, may prevent a cat having to roam very far to find a suitable toileting site. The general rule is one more litter tray than the number of cats in the household.
  3. Feed your cat at dawn and dusk and keep them indoors overnight to prevent them being outside at the times when prey species, such as mice and birds, are most active. It is important to note that if this is being done, try to spend more time playing with your cat.
  4. Using play is an important part of reducing unwanted predatory behaviour towards live prey. Instead, predatory behaviour can be directed towards non-edible sources and thereby reduce frustration. Hunting stimulates the release of dopamine in cats, therefore providing play opportunities attempts to mimic this effect. Hunting is unpredictable, so using toys in an unpredictable manner, and making it harder work for your cat, will help to redirect predatory behaviour; wand toys are ideal for this.


When should you contact your vet?

  • If you have any concerns or questions about your cat


Still have questions?

Book a video appointment to have a chat with one of our vets.

This article was written by Tanith Lee RVN. Tan qualified as a Registered Veterinary Nurse (RVN) in 2014. Since then she has worked in a variety of first opinion and referral clinics throughout the UK. She completed the ISFM Diploma in Feline Nursing with Distinction in 2016, and is currently completing the ISFM Advanced Certificate in Feline Behaviour. Tan is our Veterinary Practice Manager for FirstVet in the UK.

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