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Why do Cats Leave Hunting Trophy Gifts?
My cat loves to play with the plastic rings from the tops of milk jugs. He stalks them, pounces on them, tosses them around, and he sometimes brings one to me and drops it at my feet. Like many cat owners, I'll even find toys in my shoes from time to time. Why do cats leave us "presents?"
Cats and hunting
Cats are natural hunters. They can run as fast as 30 miles per hour, jump as high as six times their body length, they have pads on their paws to allow them to stealthily stalk their prey, and they have sharp teeth and claws made for killing and climbing. Throw in the feline hunting instinct, and it all adds up to one of the world's top predators. Cats tend to prefer small mammals and even reptiles over birds, probably because birds have good vision, relatively high intelligence, and of course, the ability to fly, all of which make them more difficult to catch. Still, many songbirds have been unwilling victims of a high jumping cat.
The prey doesn't have to be animate - if a cat is an indoor-only cat, toys, scraps of paper, bits of your clothing, your ankles, or other random objects will make worthy substitutes.
The trophy (or gift)
Cats sometimes present their "kill" to members of their human family, or leave the offering where the humans will find it. Waking up to find a catnip mouse at the foot of the bed is cute. However, this behavior is less endearing when the gift is a real animal. It's not uncommon for owners of outdoor (or indoor/outdoor) cats to wake up to find evidence of their pets' hunting prowess in the form of dead rodents on the back porch. Indoor cat owners are not completely immune to this - a mouse once got into my house, and even though I tried to "catch and release" him, I failed. I found him outside my bedroom door, minus his head, the next morning.
Why do cats leave these "gifts" for us?
Cat behaviorists currently have three different theories about why our cats leave us such presents.
- Some believe the cat is proud of her hunting skills, and since she sees us as members of her family, she's just showing off to us. It's a cat's way of giving us a compliment and saying that we're important to her.
- Another theory says that cats see us as poor hunters, and want to help us out. Some say the cat is helping out by providing extra food, and others say the cat is trying to teach us how to hunt. The latter may explain why cats sometimes bring us prey that is still alive.
- The last theory says that the cat is simply bringing the prey home to eat later, because he knows we won't eat it.
Whatever the reason, your cat will be confused if you're angry or upset about the gift. Dispose of the "treat" when your cat isn't looking. (If the animal is still alive and you'd like to keep him that way, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice. It's likely that the critter will need antibiotics if he is to survive).
How do I get my cat to stop bringing me animals?
While you can often teach a cat not to hunt other household pets such as hamsters or companion birds, you cannot teach a cat not to hunt at all. Cats will hunt even if they are well-fed. The hunting instinct is too strong for them not to. The only way to stop them from bringing home wild animals (dead or alive) is to keep them indoors. This is safer for the cat as well as for the neighborhood wildlife.
More about cat behavior:
- Understanding Cat Talk
They may not speak English, but domesticated cats "talk" to us and to each other. We're all familiar with the meow, purr, and hiss. What do these (and other) feline sounds mean?