Hunting and feeding behaviour of cats


Cats are natural carnivores and their wild ancestors are expert solitary hunters that will prey on a range of animals including small rodents, birds and insects.  Cats have been domesticated, but they retain many behaviours of their wild ancestors including those associated with hunting and feeding.  This makes cat feeding behaviour a fascinating topic since most domestic cats now happily and healthily eat food offered by their owners, which is largely divorced from their natural hunting behaviour. Many pet cats nonetheless still hunt when they have the opportunity but are sufficiently adaptable to satisfy their dietary needs entirely within a normal home environment.

Feral cats will usually eat a number of small meals throughout the day, with more hunting around dawn and dusk although cats may eat at any time in a 24-hour period since their vision and hearing work well in poor light conditions to help them catch food. Observation of feeding patterns over 24 hours show that cats will, on average, eat about 16 small meals per day. This frequency has been seen both with observations of feral cats, and video observations of domestic cats offered food on a continuous basis. Interestingly, the average meal size is something like the calories found in a very small mouse. Cats will nevertheless adapt their meal size and frequency based on the availability of food.

Hunter instinct

Feeding comprises a sequence of different behaviours.  This normally starts with searching for prey, followed by stalking, then a chase and the kill.  Even in wild cats, this hunting behaviour sequence is often separated from eating the food.  Very frequently a domestic cat may kill prey, but then never go on to eat it and many of us have experienced the “gift” of our cat’s prey that they have brought into the home, sometimes to the consternation of the owner.  For such cats, something like a bell on a collar around the cat’s neck may be a solution as it can alert potential prey earlier to the presence of the cat. Once back home, most cats will go on to eat prepared cat food from a bowl in preference to their caught prey.   This separation of feeding from hunting behaviour is a key element in the adaptability of cats to the home environment.

There is some debate about whether most cats like to eat new foods, always like a particular type of food or will usually refuse anything new.  There is also the question of whether cats feel monotony if always offered the same food. Studies have suggested all these factors play a role in cat food preferences. In general, cats will often refuse a new food. In contrast, there is evidence that repeated feeding of the same food does lead to food boredom and cats will then experiment with something new. Background plays a role too, and cats that have experienced many types of food when young are more open about trying something new. Each cat is very much an individual as a result of its background and past experience.

Cats are indeed surprising animals with respect to their feeding behaviour. On the one hand, they are efficient predators and on the other hand, cats will readily accept a wide range of different types of food, cooked or uncooked, dry or moist, and provided the nutrition is correct they are able to thrive on all of these. Another conundrum is that while they will eat a range of foods, cats are often regarded as very finicky by their owners, who may be very careful about the choice of what to feed their cat. Part of this is behaviour of the owner rather than that of the cat, and what some owners do not realise is that they are responding to training by their cat. If a cat does not eat something, the owner will try something different so the cat has the potential to significantly influence what it is given to eat depending on how their owner reacts. Cats are successful as pets because of the adaptability of their feeding behaviour.

Until modern knowledge of cat nutrition developed, it is likely that it was the ability of cats to supplement any food from humans with food they caught themselves in the wild that enabled them to breed and grow successfully. Today’s cats are more fortunate since now that we understand their nutrition needs, they are very well catered for with prepared foods that meet all their requirements; and give them the time and energy to hunt if they wish.

Dr Peter Messent

26 May 2017

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