Cats have so many winsome and appealing traits: their affectionate natures, their playful antics, their soft, fluffy fur; the way they rub against your legs or curl up on your lap to purr. They also have a few somewhat less savoury qualities, one of which is their tendency to chase and often kill any small mammals and birds that they happen to encounter. An outdoor cat can rack up quite an impressive body-count — a certain percentage of which is apt to be brought into the home as tribute. Worst of all is the feline habit of playing with prey before killing it.
Do cats eat mice? Yes, they do. They may kill significantly more than they eat but a hungry cat will certainly consume a mouse, bird or other small animal. A well-fed cat is more likely to leave their dead or injured prey uneaten but may still eat some or all of it.
If you’ve arrived on this page, you have questions about your cat’s behaviour.
- Do cats eat the mice they kill or do they only hunt for fun?
- Why do cats hunt?
- How come cats are such determined hunters?
- Can you train your cat not to hunt mice and other creatures?
- How do you prevent your cat from hunting animals and birds?
- Can you teach your cat to leave smaller pets alone?
- Is it dangerous for cats to eat mice and other wildlife?
To find out the answers for these and other questions, just keep reading. We have the information you’re looking for.
Do cats eat mice?
If you’re a cat owner who’s become accustomed to the sight of small, stiff carcasses on the mat from time to time, you might be forgiven for thinking that cats only hunt for fun. After all, if your cat was actually eating her kills, you wouldn’t keep finding them on the doorstep.
Cats certainly do eat mice. They evolved to hunt, kill and consume small animals and birds. Because of this they have extremely powerful hunting instincts. Without these, the ancestors of the domestic cat would not have been able to survive in their harsh and difficult desert surroundings. Without the vision, hearing, tactile senses and instinctive drive to hunt, cats would not have been able to make the most of the limited food available to them.
Later in history, when cats began to be domesticated, it was this hunting prowess that made them most useful to humans. The more vermin a cat could kill, the more valuable that animal would be. For centuries, humans selectively bred cats as much for their predatory natures as for any other characteristic; affection, good looks, sociability and other traits that we breed for today all took a distant second place to the ability to hunt and kill. Although certain cats have been loved and treated as important members of the household since time immemorial, most of your domestic feline companion’s ancestors were working cats first and foremost. It’s only fairly recently that people began breeding cats for other characteristics.
This intense hunting drive persists even if the cat is well-fed. In the loose colonies formed by feral cats, the reason becomes obvious: not all cats will be able to hunt all the time so it’s good for the colony’s survival if able hunters bring back their excess kill. Most cats in a colony will be related so supporting the colony as a whole helps to propagate every cat’s genes. Over-hunting is therefore an adaptive trait and one that’s persisted down the generations.
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The upshot of all this is that today’s domestic cats are, in general, terrific little hunters. It’s one of the most powerful instincts a cat possesses. Their hunting drive is triggered when they see fast movements or notice a small animal who might be suitable prey. The smell of a potential prey animal will also arouse a cat’s hunting instincts. This is simply a non-negotiable part of their nature; it cannot be trained out of them or suppressed through punishment.
When there’s no particular need for food, cats will still hunt because their instincts demand it. Just as the reward centres of human brains light up when we enjoy tasty food or receive something else we desire, a cat’s reward centres are activated when they engage in chasing and killing their prey. The act of hunting is so fulfilling that a cat will capture prey without killing it and release it again so as to enjoy the act of catching it again. This “play” looks gruesome to us but hones a cat’s predatory skills.
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How can I stop my cat from killing wildlife?
Even though domestic cats may not require additional nutrition, they’ll continue to hunt when the opportunity presents itself. There are ways you can make your make your cat less effective as a predator but if you really want to stop her from hunting, you need to keep her inside.
The impact that cats have on wildlife is not as clear-cut as it might first appear. In locations where the cat is an invasive species, of course, they tend to cause dramatic declines in local species. In countries such as the UK, where there was already a native population of wildcats, the impact of the domestic cat is less severe.
Domestic cats are often blamed for declining bird populations. While this may be true in some regions, it’s not the case everywhere. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has found no significant impact from feline predation on birdlife in the UK; it is surmised by their investigating scientists that cats tend to take birds that are already old, sick, injured or otherwise weak and unable to thrive. Rodent species seem to take more damage, as do frogs. In other countries, such as Australia, the cat is an absolute menace to the local wildlife and has unfortunately done significant harm to the ecosystem.
The most popular way to make a cat less able to catch mice, birds and other wildlife is to fit her with a collar that includes a bell. Collars should always include a breakaway fastening so that your cat can’t injure or strangle herself if the collar gets caught. Collars should be ostentatious, in bright colours; this can help prey identify the threat. Some of my fellow cat owners swear by colourful hair-scrunchies around the cat’s neck; I would avoid those as they may become caught on something and harm the cat. Ideally you should keep your cat indoors, where she can neither kill other animals or be hurt herself.
Is it safe for cats to eat mice?
Cats evolved to eat mice and similar small rodents, as well as birds and a few other animals like beetles and frogs. A cat should in theory take no harm from consuming the wildlife she manages to kill during her adventures — her natural prey should be perfectly suited to her digestive system, after all.
Problems arise when your cat consumes an animal that’s infected with diseases or parasites. It’s easy for infestations of fleas or mites to pass from a mouse to a cat. Cats can also get roundworms from eating wild animals; these worms live in your cat’s guts, competing for nutrients and impairing her health in various ways. Cats are also prone to picking up a nasty condition called toxoplasmosis, which can even spread to humans. The exact illnesses will vary from region to region. In parts of the world where rabies is prevalent, cats can contract this disease through contact with infected mice.
Mice may also carry other substances that can harm your cat. People commonly put down poison to deal with vermin in and around their homes and may set out poisoned bait in outhouses and gardens as well. If a mouse or other animal consumes the poison and is then caught by your cat, the cat could also be poisoned. While some people take care to choose non-toxic deterrents and traps that aren’t dangerous to other pets, not everyone is so careful. Ingesting a mouse that’s been given a dose of poison could seriously harm or even kill your cat. If your cat brings a sick or poisoned prey animal into the home, there’s also a risk that other household members might be affected (such as the small child who attempts to rescue the victim). All in all, it’s much safer to prevent your cat from eating mice.
Can I teach my cat to leave pet mice alone?
The short answer to this is that no, you can’t. The same goes for rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea-pigs, rabbits, fish and most reptiles. In very rare instances a cat may somehow fail to recognise the other pet as potential prey and bond with it, or at least leave it alone. Do not assume that the cute internet photos of kitten and bunny “best friends” mean that your cat too will form a loving association with other small animals in the home.
Some people assume that they can train a cat out of harming their other pets through reward and punishment. This is vanishingly unlikely to work. Cats don’t really understand punishment; if you shout at her or squirt her with cold water for going near a cage full of mice, all your cat will learn is that you are a terrifying creature who shouts at cats and squirts them with cold water. As for reward, there is nothing you could possibly offer that’s more satisfying than convenient live prey.
Your only real option is to keep cats and smaller pets separate. Cages and tanks should ideally be kept in rooms where the cat doesn’t go. If you take the smaller animals out to play with them, secure the cat in another room until they’re safely back in their cages. Do not allow them to interact.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.