Birthday and holiday gifts. Wedding registries and Valentine presents. Most items generously bestowed upon us in moments of celebration highlight how loved we are. Our feline friends may be eager to join in the festivities but often miss the mark by ignoring our gift list and opting to leave us a dead animal they’ve caught instead.
But why do cats bring you dead animals? Why not consume it or leave it elsewhere out of our sight?
To understand what goes on between our kitty’s pert little ears, we have to start to think like a cat.
Understanding a Cat’s Prey Drive
In the wild, cats hunt between 10-20 times daily, accounting for up to 80 percent of their awake time. Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter released upon anticipation of a reward, is released while a cat hunts, even more so when a cat catches its prey.
Each attempt at hunting is only successful less than half of the time. Therefore, cats also use hunting experiences as a means of practicing to be an even better predator, and playing with their prey helps felines sharpen their skills. Cats may also play with their prey to disorient or tire out these wild animals to make killing them easier, conserving energy for the cat.
Although our cats don’t need to worry about where their next meal is coming from, our pets still harbor a well-ingrained hunting instinct that has been passed down evolutionarily from their big cat relatives.
Small prey items that a domestic cat can safely conquer primarily include rodents (mice, rats, moles, shrews, chipmunks, squirrels), birds (especially songbirds), small reptiles and amphibians (snakes, lizards, frogs), and the occasional rabbit or insect. Hunting also encourages a cat to naturally exercise, and the way in which a cat catches small prey items lends itself to the natural eating preference for our domestic cats: multiple mini meals (or grazing) throughout the day.
When domestic cats are not allowed to hunt or if they lack simulated hunting such as through playing and other environmental enrichment exercises, behavioral and health problems can occur. Cats can become bored, frustrated, and stressed. Obesity, urinary disorders, as well as behavioral issues such as aggression and household destruction have been linked to cats that lack mental and physical stimulation.
While all domestic cat breeds may engage in hunting activity, some kitties have a higher prey drive than others. More active hunters include the Siamese, Maine Coon, Bengal, Abyssinian, and Burmese. Breeds that are more relaxed and tend to be less interested in hunting include Himalayans and Ragdolls.
Why Do Cats Bring You Dead Animals?
Although cats are sometimes solitary animals, big cats often hunt in groups, and stray domestic cats live in colonies. Therefore, sharing prey with their pack is a typical behavior.
Since our house cats regard us as part of their posse, many cats will bring us dead animals (often intact) as a sign of affection. Cats may also do this as a method of storing their prey for later consumption, to try to share their knowledge with us on how to hunt (much like a mother cat teaches her kittens), or to pass on a gift to us as a recognized member of their group.
Our cats view us as family, and they wish to provide for our survival – mistakenly yet kindly thinking a dead mouse offering is to our palate’s liking.
Mother cats often resist fully killing their prey to bring home injured animals to their young to help them practice killing so they can hunt later on when they’re older. Morbid, yes, but it’s an evolutionary means of survival wired in our cats’ brains from their ancestors. They may amusingly think we humans need to brush up on our hunting skills.
Though this instinct does not mean that our kitties are evil, cold-blooded killers, their hunting behavior should be controlled.
What Should You Do If Your Cat Brings You a Dead Animal?
If your cat presents you with a prey animal that is still alive but injured, safely transporting the animal to a local veterinarian (ideally, a wildlife vet) or certified wildlife rehabilitator is recommended.
Wear thick gloves when picking up the animal to prevent any bites, place the animal in a box with air holes for ventilation, and keep it warm. Avoid trying to feed or nurse the wild animal yourself as more harm than good may inadvertently result, despite one’s best intentions.
If the prey animal is dead, wear disposable gloves to place it in a plastic bag that you can tie and place in your outdoor garbage bin for disposal. Use a soapy solution to clean any blood or entrails left behind, and follow up with a disinfectant to kill any germs.
If you observe your kitty consuming a prey item, a checkup with your veterinarian may be warranted. Firstly, wildlife can transmit fleas, ticks, and other parasites and infections to your cat, such as roundworms, toxoplasmosis, hantavirus, leptospirosis, and plague. Some of these diseases can be zoonotic, meaning they can be spread to humans, so having your cat examined by your vet and trying to prevent your cat from acquiring these diseases in the first place are important.
Secondly, allowing your cat to hunt outdoors may result in other injuries, such as small mammal or snake bites. Additionally, if rat bait (or a rodenticide) is used near your property, the rodent that consumed the poison can make your cat very sick if your cat eats the rodent. Therefore, have your cat examined by your veterinarian if you notice your cat has been hunting.
How to Stop Your Cat from Bringing You Gifts
Not only is the sight of dead animals unsightly for a squeamish cat parent, but the impact on local wildlife populations and biodiversity is even more reason to keep our cats from hunting outdoors.
Songbirds are especially at risk from cats. The American Bird Conservancy reports that outdoor cats are responsible for killing approximately 2.4 billion birds in the United States each year and have contributed to the extinction of 63 various species of wild mammals, birds, and reptiles around the world.
So what can pet parents do if cats bring them dead animals?
Keeping your cats strictly indoors or with only supervised access to the outdoors in a secured area or by using a harness and leash are the best ways to prevent unwanted hunting activity and subsequent “gift giving.” Training cats not to hunt is not very effective, and punishment can lead to negative behavioral consequences (including stress, distrust, and displaced aggression).
If you are going to let your cat outdoors, fitting her collar with a bell will help reduce her ability to sneak up on potential prey. Keep bird feeders up high (or avoid installing them at all) to prevent cats from climbing them. Additionally, avoid letting your kitty outside at night and in the early mornings when most wild animals, such as small mammals and birds, are most active. Having your cat spayed or neutered is also strongly encouraged, in part to reduce their likelihood of straying and expanding their kill zone radius.
Environmental enrichment is key to keeping indoor cats healthy and happy. Cat trees placed by windows for outdoor viewing, games that mimic a cat’s prey drive, or interactive toys can keep cats fulfilled.
Doc & Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder, created by veterinarian Dr. Liz Bales, is one of the best tools out there to engage your kitty’s hunting instinct. This indoor feeding system also boasts health benefits, such as reducing obesity, regurgitation after eating (i.e. “scarf and barf”), and urinary issues, and is the next best thing to hunting for helping your cat feel rewarded.