Hunting behaviour of cats
Understanding hunting behaviour
Cats are natural hunters
So efficient were their skills as predators, that the ancestors of our domestic cats were welcomed when they began to live alongside humans over 4,000 years ago. These felines were attracted to the plentiful supply of rodents around human settlements and domestication followed.
While the prodigious hunting ability of the cat is appreciated in many countries, in Australia a rather different view is bestowed. Cats, here, are often regarded as pests, killers of our unique and rare wildlife; unwelcome intruders in native bushland and desert. Do cats deserve this reputation?
Several studies have shown that cats do indeed have a negative effect on our native fauna. Cats have been found to eat native animals such as bandicoots, possums, gliders, insectivores, native rats and some bat species. Native birds are also prey, as are reptiles. Although cats are ideally suited to catching small, burrowing rodents, they are generally opportunistic hunters, taking the chance to prey on whatever animals that are encountered. Certain individuals, however, may become specialists for a particular prey type.
Native Australian species are particularly vulnerable as they have not evolved with felines (although there has been the presence of similar sized marsupial predators) and thus have not developed effective predator detection nor predator defense mechanisms. Seasonal breeding in Australian mammals may also prevent adequate population growth to compensate for the predatory impact.
Learning to Hunt
Predatory behaviour is instinctive but requires fine-tuning by observation and by practice. Mother cats bring prey home to their kittens who practice pouncing, chasing and killing. Early experience with a particular prey type is known to influence later hunting behaviour. To prevent cats in Australia hunting native fauna, we should prevent mother cats from bringing native fauna to their kittens.
How cats hunt
Cats hunt using two methods:
Cats tend to return to successful hunting grounds. Often these are areas that depart from the typical surrounds, for example bush as opposed to houses and gardens. Pockets of suburban bushland are probably ideal targets and local extinctions of native fauna may be common.
While many people admire the hunter ability of cats, in some countries eg. Australia, this is frowned upon due to its impact on native animal species. It is important to satisfy our cat's hunting drives at home." Dr Jo
More about feline hunting
Cats hunt alone, the size of their prey requiring no cooperation amongst felines. They avoid other cats by avoiding territories or by time partitioning, being active at different times from other cats.
Cats often carry their prey home and females, particularly those with kittens, tend to do this more often than intact or castrated males. Of course, cats do not always kill their prey immediately. Larger of difficult prey are often played with before, after or instead of killing them.
Some cats do not bring their prey home. As owners, we may be completely unaware that they hunt when they leave our house and garden. On the other hand, some domestic cats, perhaps as many as 40%, never hunt. We do not know why but it may be due to inadequate learning as kittens.
“My cat is too well-fed to hunt!”
Hunger is not necessary for predatory behaviour to occur. Less time is spent hunting when cats are fed at home but well-fed cats may still hunt and be very efficient killers. Hunting may depend on the time since the last meal and cats will often preferentially take lots of small meals as opposed to one or two larger meals each day. We can hypothesize, therefore, that providing lots of small meals at home may reduce the cat’s desire to hunt.
Whilst ancestors of the domestic cat were most likely nocturnal, nowadays feral cats in colonies, hunt over the entire 24-hour period. We are, therefore, seeing a shift in hunting behaviour, probably to adapt to our human lifestyle.
Australian native mammals tend to be nocturnal, with dawn and dusk being particularly vulnerable times for prey species. Cat owners have therefore been encouraged to curfew their cats at night. In sensitive bushland areas, however, this may not be enough. Some councils are now proposing to keep cats out of bushland reserves at all times by keeping cats indoors or within their own gardens.