How to Satisfy Cat Hunting Instincts Appropriately

A cat playing or hunting with a feather toy.
A cat playing or hunting with a feather toy. Photography ©Ramonespelt | Thinkstock.

As you glance over at your cat lounging placidly in the late afternoon sun, you might not realize that a mighty hunter lurks just below that fluffy surface. Cats were born to hunt, although most domestic pet cats who live indoors rarely get to indulge that cat hunting instinct. 

Why You Need to Address Your Cat’s Hunting Instincts

A tabby cat stalking and about to pounce.
Cat hunting instincts shouldn’t be repressed or ignored. Photography ©Daniel Rodriguez Tirad | Thinkstock.

“The predatory behavior that cats exhibit outside as feral cats does not go away because you put them inside,” says Lisa Radosta DVM, Dipl. ACVB, of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida. “If you think about a cat’s life — they have good lives, don’t get me wrong — but most of them live inside of a box and they don’t leave. Imagine how you would feel if every day you were just in the house.”

Much like animals at the zoo, cats — especially indoor cats — need stimulation and environmental enrichment. Some cats simply become bored at home, but others become frustrated by the inability to do what comes naturally: explore, exercise and hunt. That frustration can lead to behavioral issues at home. “My theory is that every single clinical behavior problem or emotional disorder in cats will respond in some way to environmental enrichment alone,” Dr. Radosta states.

Since most of us don’t want our pet cats to actually hunt and kill live animals, using play and toys to tap into your cat’s innate desire to stalk, chase, pounce and kill is a great way to enrich her environment and improve her overall well-being.

Why Are Some Cats Better Hunters Than Others?

Some cats are just naturally more predatory. “Some cats are more hunters and some are completely lazy,” Dr. Radosta explains. “Just like there are some dogs who want to chase a ball and there are some that don’t want to. Bengals in particular have a huge amount of energy. They’re incredibly smart and they’re really good hunters. Bengals are special, but are not for the faint of heart!”

Cat Hunting Toys to Engage Your Kitty’s Inner Hunter

An excited cat playing with a toy, about to pounce.
It’s important to address your cat’s hunting urges without aggression. Photography ©sjallenphotography | Thinkstock.

All pets need to be stimulated and engaged, but cats need environmental enrichment the most. Dogs go for walks and trips to the park, and many accompany their owners to restaurants, coffee shops and even on vacations. Cats not so much. Pet toy companies understand this and are constantly coming out with innovative new toys to engage cats at home.

Every cat is unique. One cat might find a particular toy fun and exciting, but another cat might ignore it completely. Forget the traditional jingle balls and toy mice and try out a few of the fancier, motorized toys that move, triggering your cat’s hunting instinct.

Dr. Radosta’s cat Chewie loves the Catty Whack by OurPets, which randomly moves a feather in and out of various holes in the toy, keeping cats on their toes so they can try to snag it. Chewie also adores his Hexbug mouse, which is basically a robotic mouse — as close to the real thing as you’d like your cat to get!

Other toys on the market release treats or food when your cat plays with them, which makes him “work” for his food much like he would need to do if hunting in the wild. Feather wands and fishing pole cat toys are less high-tech, but real feline crowd pleasers. Bring them out for short play sessions and hide them away when you’re not using them to keep your cat excited about the hunt.

Play into Cat Hunting Instincts With Views of the Great Outdoors

For some cats, simply setting up a nice spot to watch birds or squirrels outside can be entertaining, but make sure your cat doesn’t find the sight of prey outside too frustrating. “Some cats can watch a little bird all day outside the screen and not at all be upset that they can’t get to it. They just think of it as television,” Dr. Radosta says.

“Other cats will respond by turning and biting the dog next to them. It’s going to depend on the particular cat and how many outlets that kitty has for predatory behavior outside of that moment. If the only time a kitty ever sees anything that he can hunt is when he’s confined, then that’s going to be a more frustrated cat.”

A Laser Pointer is a Good Answer to Cat Hunting Instincts — Sometimes

Finally, a laser pointer can be a fun way to harness your cat’s hunting behavior, but use it with caution. Never shine the light in your cat’s eyes — it can do serious damage. And observe your cat to makes sure he’s not getting too frustrated because he can’t “catch” the dot.

“Laser pointers are fun, but at the end of that session be sure the laser is pointed on something that the animal can ‘kill,’ some toy that the cat can get in there and rake and pick up with his paws,” Dr. Radosta explains. “What we sometimes see is kitties become really frustrated and redirect that frustration by biting the owner or another cat or a dog because they are really riled up.”

If your cat gets too frustrated, skip the laser games and play with some actual toys that your cat can physically capture.

Tell us: How do you engage your cat’s hunting instincts? Do you have a cat who’s a really good “hunter”?

Thumbnail: Photography ©Ramonespelt | Thinkstock. 

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27 thoughts on “How to Satisfy Cat Hunting Instincts Appropriately”

  1. Hi! I need help…

    So I have two eight month old kittens, one male and the other female (they are siblings), and both are spayed and neutered. About a couple weeks ago I ordered a harness and leash for both of them to take them outside to explore in the backyard, and up to now I take them out most days for about an hour and a half. I’ve noticed the male in particular has become more of a hunter than he was before I started taking him outside. Before when he would catch an unsuspecting lizard indoors, I could hold him and jiggle him some so he could drop it and I could take the lizard outside unharmed. But just a few days ago he caught a lizard and was growling the whole time I was trying to catch him, and when I did catch him, he munched on the lizard and mortally wounded him (lizard ended up dying). This has been a huge concern for me for days because I have pet birds in the house, and I started worrying that if he gets that aggressive with lizards than he could be the same way with my birds (I’ve always had birds and cats living together in my home for 15+ years and it has NEVER been a problem—the cats never cared and paid no mind to the birds).

    Today my older bird lost his balance and fell to the floor, and the male kitten came charging and swatted him and hit him on his body as the bird was mid flight trying to get away. My bird is thankfully okay, but this could have gone in SUCH a different direction if I had not stopped him. He wasn’t like this before I started taking him outside. Could taking him outside be further triggering his hunting instincts?? Or is this some normal instinctual progression that would have happened regardless? I’m very worried about how this is going to work with him and my birds. I love them all to pieces and would love to find a solution that keeps everyone in the home, but all I ever read anywhere is keeping the birds in their cages and high up—but I don’t believe in having birds if you’re just going to keep them in a cage all day long. Birds are very social creatures and need a lot of attention and stimulation, so mine are outside of their cages until sleep time. Please help!!

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  3. I have a 8 wk feral who I brought back to health since she was 4 wks, she is the fastest and agile cat I have ever seen and I feel really bad that she is indoors, I don’t know what to do. She is always trying to hunt something or play . I’ve bought her toys the tower with balls that go round, stuft toys, feather on a stick, lazer, even the mat with the hose that goes round. She is not interested. But put your fingers under a sheet and she will play for hours. She even knocked the feather stick down from the counter and DRAGGED it over to my chair, jumped up with it (I was watching tv) and next thing I know I got smacked in the face with the end of it where she must have jumped on one end?! She is def smart what do I do? I luckily telework right now, but still have to work. Worse thing is she wont stop scratching and biting me

  4. I take my 2 yo cat on almost daily walks with a leash. We circle the apartment complex or go to a park. She is very intent on catching birds and squirrels but the leash is too short. She is a great tree climber and can reach pretty high now and still get herself down. When we get home she is usually keen to play because the birds got her wound up. No behavior issues, probably because the walks help. She only plays rough if we don’t get outside time.

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  8. We adopted/rescued our cat in April,2018. 2 issues- 1-He was very skinny when we brought him home. He begs CONSTANTLY for food. Wondering if a former owner gave him table food as he begs and we cannot keep him from our counter and table when food is out. We cannot leave food out for him to graze all day. We feed him at 6am and 6pm every day. He wakes us at 4am yelling for food. We have tried a little wet food at night, as the vet recommended it may hold him longer. Didn’t work. Issue number 2-The bigger problem, is he now treats me in particular, as prey. This is a new development. I initially used a water spray bottle to deter behavior as well as scolding and pushing him away, but I think this increased the aggression. When I push him away, he comes back stronger and hisses. I now stand still, or shield myself with a towel. VERY uncomfortable as I feel stalked and on edge. This behavior seems to be its worst, when I am getting ready to leave for work, when I am getting ready for bed and now sometimes first thing in the AM, before and after he eats. I try to engage him with toys to divert his energy. Sometimes we put him in his crate if needed(he likes his crate and sometimes goes in on his own.) Not sure what to do- About ready to bring him back to the Humane Society. Will not bring another cat in to keep him company. We have enough going on. He started wearing a pheromone collar a week + ago. Don’t think it has helped at all. Any recommendations are great appreciated. Love him to pieces when he is sweet, but quality of life is suffering here.

    1. Hi there,
      We suggest contacting your vet, a behaviorist and / or the Humane Society for the best advice. These articles might help, too:

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  10. My indoor cat is about five years old, and he loves us to play with him every day. We have a soft toy fish, with wings. It is attached to the end of a piece of string, and it flaps about like a real creature when jiggled. He also has a cardboard box, where we leave the fish when not in use. Every day he will come and sit in the box to signal when he is ready for a game. We swish it around, and move it very slowly along the floor. He will watch it very closely and carefully, get into crouch position, wiggle his bottom, and choose his moment to leap at it with all four paws in the air. He never gets bored with the game, and it is a sweet way to bond.

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  13. I have a 2 yr old male cat, he’s something special I adopted him a yr ago, at first I started to introduce him to the outside world by leaching him in the porch, one he got use to my 2 chihuahuas and got to know the neighborhood I got him loose, he goes out 3 times a day, he loves chasing the pigeons, he save us from big snake, he’s my hero

  14. That was funny! My 18 yr old cat hasn’t wanted to play with anything more than about 30 seconds in 3 or 4 years now. Makes me a little sad.

    1. Deborah, your cat is 18 years old. That should make you very happy! ???? I know what you mean, though. My previous cat departed at 20, and between arthritis in her back and some kidney issues, she didn’t want to play in her last few years.

      1. I have a 26 year old cat who is the most playful of all 3 cats. She doesn’t play long or hard, but she does love to chase things. The other few preset live prey. They almost never hurt the lizards, mice oe birds, but get so much joy out of watching me try to catch them. They then get released outside. The hardest ones were the humming birds my 16 year old girl keeps bring in. Her brother, also 16, prefers the mice and lizards.

  15. I bought a laser pointer built into a toy mouse. I figured that after my cat had chased the dot for a while I could give her the mouse to give her the feeling she’d caught some prey.

    So she chased after the dot until I eventually tossed the mouse to her. She picked it up and managed to press the activating button. She shook the mouse to stun it, making the dot jump around. Very amusing. Until she managed to point the dot out of the window. At a passenger jet that was coming in to land at the nearby airport. She must have blinded the pilot and co-pilot, because it crashed killing all on board.

    What should I do now?

    1. Really? Please name the date and place where this occurred so it can be researched. News stories (newspapers, TV, radio…) would help me (and others) believe your story.

    2. Did not happen, cat lasers max out at 20 feet. So no pilot saw the laser or crashed the plane. Hope this is you trying to be funny Paul? I also hope you are playing with your cat, for reals.

    3. Jeez…What a weird and somewhat sick story to come up with! Your mind surely functions … differently – will we say to stay polite.
      You should consider writing fiction books. Might have some success there.

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