The secret life of cats: hunting small animals
Published 24/06/2016 | 00:00
This is the busiest time of year for cats: they may mislead us into believing that they are lazy beasts, content to lie around the home. But the truth is that many cats have secret lives of busyness.
My own cat, Spin, gave me first hand evidence of this a few years ago. He used to spend his days snoozing in our kitchen, waking up for a bite to eat from time to time, and going for an occasional stroll in the garden. We presumed that he just enjoyed this life of inactivity. Then we decided to do a trial to monitor exactly how much he did when we weren't watching him. We set him up with a special collar tag that used GPS to track his movements. I left the tag on his collar for 24 hours, then I plugged it into the USB socket of my computer and watched as his footsteps for the previous day came up as a dotted line on Google maps.
His daytime activities were predictable enough: he stayed in our kitchen, out into the back garden, then back into the kitchen again. But the surprise came at night time, after we'd gone to bed. We had always believed that he continued to sleep, as he did in the daytime. He was in the kitchen when we went to bed, and we we came down at breakfast, he was still there. Little did we know what he did in the interim period.
The GPS tracker showed that around midnight, he exited the kitchen via the cat flap in the back door. And for the next six hours, he was a very busy little cat. After doing a few circuits of our garden, he headed off into our neighbours' gardens, walking up to the backs of their houses, then over their perimeter and across to the next residence. When I counted, he had visited twenty different homes in one night. He covered a distance of around 5km, with all of the backward and forwarding from place to place. Then around 5.30am, the dotted line showed that he headed back to our own back door, letting himself in through the cat flap so that by 6am, he was safely back in our kitchen, curled up in an illusion of innocence for our benefit. We now realised that there was a good reason for his sleepiness throughout the daytime.
What was Spin doing during the busy night hours? This remained a mystery to some extent: I'd have to attach a camera to his collar to find out for sure. But my best guess is that he indulged in two common cat activities: socialising and hunting.
Cats are exceptionally social creatures. This doesn't mean that they love spending time with many other cats. Instead, they are very aware of other cats, marking out their own territory, and doing their best to keep other cats out of it. From Spin's movements, I now knew that he had an extensive personal realm, and he must also have spent time stalking around other cats' territory where it adjoined his own. He probably met other cats from time to time, but the main social activity is observation rather than engagement.
In contrast, when cats hunt, it's all about engagement. Cats are obligatory carnivores: they have evolved to enjoy eating fresh meat, and the best way to get this is to catch small prey. They are skilful predators, with an ability to prowl quietly and cautiously through undergrowth, their eyes fixed firmly on the rodent or bird that they have spotted. They can move so slowly that they look almost stationary, waiting until the last moment to crouch down into a low-set pose before leaping at speed towards their target. They then pounce, using their sharp claws to grab their victim, and their long teeth to inflict damage.
Strangely, cats often choose not to kill their prey at once. Instead, they immobilise the small creatures, then carry them somewhere safe (e.g. Into our kitchen) where they repeatedly let them go then capture them again. It's as if they are giving themselves repeated lessons on how to catch prey. There's a rule in the human world that it takes 10000 hours of practice to become truly expert in any activity. Perhaps cats know this instinctively, repeating their hunting behaviour time after time to become better and better. We often come downstairs in the morning to find evidence of our cats' hunting practice, with dead mice and birds, surrounded by fur and feathers, on our kitchen floor.
Many cat owners are distressed by their pets' hunting behaviour. They are animal lovers, and they're upset by the evidence of animal suffering caused by cats. So can anything done to stop cats from hunting?
The old style collar and bell does not work: arguably, these just teach cats to hunt even more effectively as they learn to move even more slowly and imperceptibly than before to prevent the bell from making a sound. A modern equivalent - the Cat Bib - prevents cats from being able to make that final energetic pounce, allowing the prey to escape at the last moment.
In my experience, however, there's only one effective way of stopping cats from hunting: keep them indoors at night. That's when cats do most of their predatory stalking. If the catflat is locked from 11pm to 7am, cats can be prevented from carrying out their nightly strolls and kills.
A photo of Pete's pet dog Kiko is being auctioned as a fundraiser for the ISPCA, linked to the new movie "The Secret Life of Pets" . See www.ispca.ie for more.