Activity/Playing/Training Behavior Thinks & Blinks

Dead Gifts: Why Your Cat Is Showing You How to Hunt

Learn why cats bring home dead animals.

That Dead Mouse Isn’t a Gift

We’ve all experienced it, heard the stories or seen it in The Oatmeal cartoons. A cat brings her owner a dead mouse or bird, what’s the response? “Thanks for the gift, Harriet, but what do I want with a dead bird? Hahaha.” This is a common misconception. Cats are actually teaching YOU how to hunt. Here’s the background.

Cats View You as an Equal

Cats view you as another cat, like a sibling or a mother. And yes, even if you are male, you are a mother. Mother cats are responsible for caring for kittens, which is exactly what YOU do.

Guess what mother cats do? Teach kittens how to hunt.

From Dead to Alive to Dead Again

When a mother is teaching a kitten how to hunt, she does it in stages:

  1. First, she brings back dead prey. The kitten plays with it.
  2. Next, wounded prey. The kitten plays with it until it dies.
  3. Lastly, alive and kicking prey.  The kitten plays with it until it dies.

Your cat knows you don’t know how to hunt – you’ve shown it by giving them dehydrated brown nibblets (as Friskies calls them). A dead animal is a way of saying, “Here, this is how you reeeeeeally do it.” or, for the less experienced hunter, “Come on, let’s play!”

For Kittens, Prey Is a Toy

Now, think about it from a kitten’s perspective. Their first experience with prey is when their mom gives them a dead thing. What are they going to do with it? They’re going to bat it around for a while.

Next, it’s injured. They are going to bat it around more until it stops moving like in step 1.

Then, it’s alive. Time to chase it and bat it around again until it stops moving like in steps 2 and 3.

Hunting and playing go hand in hand for cats. Which leads to the related point …

Playing Fetch

Fetch is similar to a mother cat’s hunting lessons: Bring back prey, and if it gets away, catch it and bring it back again. In each step, the kitten plays with the prey before it dies. That’s why it’s actually logical that some cats play fetch (although, it’s more common in cats that didn’t have a full round of hunting lessons with Mom).

If your cat plays fetch, he sees it as a bonding experience with you, like hunting is with a mother and kitten.

My cat, Beaker, was rescued at 5 weeks. As a less experienced hunter, it makes sense that he plays fetch:

Some cats will play fetch nonstop, although most lose attention quickly, like they do with everything else.

FACT: Scientists have a hard time studying the intelligence of cats because their attention spans are so short. This is likely related to their hunting and survival instincts – moving objects distract them.

Failed Murder Attempts

Because of early independence, singletons (kittens raised without a mother or siblings) or former neonate kittens (bottle babies) often don’t know how to totally kill a rodent. They didn’t get to stage 3 aka The Killing Stage (mwahahaha) with their mothers. These cats will likely toy with the mouse and fail at killing it. Of course, they still have their instinct to hunt and kill, but it may take them a little longer than a cat that graduated with honors in hunting.

“Thanks, but, no thanks.”

Now you know that dead Tweety isn’t a gift, and rather an invite to hunting lessons, I hope you’ll thank your cat as you politely decline the offer.

Orange and white cat with dead bird

Still trying to understand cat behavior? Read my last Thinks & Blinks post on why your cat might be peeing outside the litter box.

By LizsKittyBootCamp

Hi, I'm Liz, and I'm a cat behaviorist who provides advice and insights on cat behavior.

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