Have you ever wondered why cats play with their prey before delivering the final blow? It’s a behavior that has intrigued and puzzled many cat owners and animal enthusiasts. But, contrary to popular belief, this behavior is not rooted in sadism but rather serves a practical purpose. In this article, we delve into the fascinating world of feline instincts and predatory behaviors to understand the reasons behind this seemingly cruel behavior. By exploring the evolutionary significance and benefits of playing with prey, we aim to provide a deeper understanding of why cats engage in this practical hunting strategy.

Here’s why cats “play” with their prey before killing it

No, the behavior of cats playing with their prey is not driven by sadism but rather by practicality.

At first glance, it may appear that a cat is toying with its food before consuming it. However, there is a crucial reason behind this behavior: survival. When a cat delivers the final blow, it typically involves a bite, which requires the cat to bring its vulnerable face close to the animal. If the prey is cornered and dying, it will instinctively fight back, thrashing and biting with whatever strength it has left.

Although it may not seem like a significant threat coming from a small creature, any wound can potentially lead to infection. Moreover, smaller birds under attack tend to target the eyes, posing a significant risk. Considering that cats are frequent hunters, even when not hungry, the cumulative risk of eye injuries can become substantial. Thus, it simply isn’t worth the potential harm.

Kitten playing with a toy mouse. Cats also learn the strategy of playing with their prey as kittens.
Cats also learn the strategy of playing with their prey as kittens. Through play, they develop essential hunting skills and understand the importance of exhausting and immobilizing their prey before striking. This behavior is ingrained in their instincts and contributes to their effectiveness as hunters. Photo: a kitten playing with a toy mouse by Kim Davies on Unsplash

Because cats were relatively recently domesticated, they still retain numerous instincts inherited from their wild ancestors. These instincts, honed over generations, include hunting techniques and behaviors such as playing with prey. Even though domestic cats are provided with food, the drive to hunt remains deeply ingrained within them. Through playing, especially during their kittenhood, cats refine their hunting skills, learn about their prey’s behavior, and develop the necessary coordination and agility for successful hunting. This instinctual behavior showcases the enduring influence of their wild lineage and highlights their remarkable adaptability to the domestic environment.

Cats possess incredibly nimble paws that can be kept at a safe distance from their eyes, making them a smarter tool to use in dealing with prey. By tossing the animal around for a period, the cat ensures that its prey becomes exhausted or incapacitated, thus minimizing the risk of injury. This allows the cat to proceed with the kill or even choose to leave if the situation becomes too dangerous.

Interestingly, cats exhibit this behavior even when they are not actively hunting. They seem to derive great enjoyment from it. The reason behind this lies in their evolutionary programming. Just as children enjoy running even without any immediate threat, we are wired to take pleasure in practicing survival skills. It is a natural instinct that persists in both humans and animals.

While it may not be enjoyable for the prey, nature often operates in ways that are harsh and seemingly unfair. The practicality of the behavior outweighs any perception of sadism, as cats instinctively utilize strategies that increase their chances of survival in the wild.


M. Özgür Nevres

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