Some cat behaviours can be difficult to understand: why do they suddenly jump up and run from one end of the house to the other, why do they knead your lap or the cushion when they’re relaxing, why do they meow in the middle of the night? Perhaps most pressingly of all, why on Earth do they insist on leaving dead (or dying) prey on the doorstep?
- Why do cats drag dead animals and other objects into the house?
- Are they trying to feed you? How can you prevent this behaviour?
These are all questions that most cat owners ask from time to time. If you want to find out what’s going on — and how to dissuade Kitty from leaving half a vole on the bedside table again — keep reading.
Your cat’s gift-giving: what you need to know
Why does my cat bring me things? “Things” in this case typically translates to “dead rodents, birds and other small animals”. That said, cats do sometimes bring their human caregivers’ other objects: some drop off toys or other small items they can carry easily, such as bottle-caps or leaves. While gifts like these are cute and quirky, dead and moribund prey animals are less so.
To understand why your cat persists in this behaviour, we need to consider feline psychology. When feral cats have their druthers, they form sprawling semi-matriarchal colonies. All the colony members hunt at will. When they’ve eaten sufficient prey to feel satiated, they don’t stop hunting but bring surplus prey back to the colony.
There will always be some colony members who can’t hunt — old, injured or sick cats and recent mothers, for instance. There are also younger cats who have been weaned but aren’t very skilled at hunting yet, and who might go hungry if they don’t get a little help. (This, by the way, is the source of that notoriously insatiable feline prey drive. Many people condemn cats as “greedy” or “cruel” because they keep on hunting even when they’re properly fed.
The fact is that in feral colonies, it makes sense for successful hunters to keep on snatching as much prey as they can because every extra mouse or bird is vital nourishment for their colony-mates.) In a domestic scenario, the colony is replaced by a human household. The cat is fed and has access to abundant nutrition; therefore, it makes perfect sense for Kitty to trot home with a freshly-caught mouse now and then.
If you have an indoor cat — and you really should — the urge to offer surplus prey can be transferred to other objects: toys, small pieces of plastic trash, leaves and items such as socks or gloves may all be “caught” and delivered to the cat’s human colony-mates in lieu of deceased rodents. One of my friend’s cats insists on bringing her the large plastic rings from milk bottles; another likes to “catch” a particular chew-toy, deposit it in the kitchen and then meow until my friend comes in and gratefully accepts the prize.
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How can I stop my cat from bringing dead animals home?
First of all, don’t punish your cat for doing this. She won’t understand and it’s not fair on her. All you’ll do is convince her that you aren’t to be trusted. What you need to do is get to the root of the problem: you’re receiving the gift of a tasty shrew because your cat has caught more prey than she can even eat. The best way to stop her from bringing prey home is to prevent her from catching them in the first place.
My recommendation would be to keep your cat indoors, which protects small birds and animals from her and protects her from the many threats represented by the great outdoors. As much as I adore cats, I would be hard-pressed to deny that they can absolutely lay waste to the local wildlife. Outdoor cats catch and kill an astonishing number of birds and animals — it’s really shocking. On the flip side, cats themselves are at risk every time they step outside of the house.
The mildest threats they face are internal and external parasites, such as fleas, ticks and worms. Traffic accounts for a large number of cat injuries and deaths, with large and aggressive dogs being another hazard. Other cats can do a surprising amount of damage. There are also cruel and abusive humans who’ll cheerfully harass, hurt or even kill a domestic cat. You can easily compensate for the loss of freedom by providing entertainment in the form of toys and play equipment.
I keep my cats indoors and they’re perfectly happy to scramble around their cat tree or the tops of the book-cases. I understand that some cats don’t do well indoors, however; in the following sections, we’ll look at alternatives to keeping your cat inside full-time.
I don’t want dead birds on the doorstep but my cat hates being cooped up. What can I do?
If you’re reluctant to confine your cat, building her an outdoor enclosure to run around in will give her exercise and fresh air while also limiting her access to small, crunchy “gifts”. You can buy enclosures ready-made or construct your own from inexpensive DIY supplies. Even if you’re not terribly handy, it’s easy enough to create a roofed-over section of your garden with simple chicken-wire and wooden batons.
Another option is to harness-train your cat and take her for walks on a lead. Do use a harness, by the way — it’s safer, more comfortable and more secure than trying to use a collar and lead. Don’t try to wrestle your cat into a harness without proper preparation; failing to introduce the harness in a non-threatening way is where many owners go wrong. As with any object you want the cat to get used to (nail clippers, shedding combs, kitty carriers and so on), the first step is to leave the item where your cat will see it and get used to it.
A favourite snoozing spot or (better yet) the vicinity of her food dish is good. Once the cat is accustomed to the sight and smell of the harness, you can try loosely draping it over her body when she’s relaxed and calm. Leave it there for a few seconds, then remove it. Place the harness over your cat’s body for progressively longer periods. When you can leave it on her for several minutes, try fastening it briefly. Leave it done up for a short while, then give your cat a treat or another reward.
Keep doing this, building up the time she wears the harness until you can leave it on for several minutes. Then you can introduce her to the lead in the same way. Be patient and allow her to get used to the harness gradually before you try to take her out.
I don’t have space for an enclosure and my cat is scared of the harness. Kitty needs to be outside! What do I do to stop her from bringing in prey?
Sometimes building an outdoor enclosure isn’t possible and some cats really won’t take to the harness, despite the best efforts of their owners and trainers. If this is your situation, read on. You can still reduce the amount of carnage she can wreak by frightening off her unwitting playmates. Some people recommend using deterrents like bird-scarers and scent repellents around the properly; these don’t work on every prey species, however, and won’t stop your cat from roaming further afield to look for crunchy entertainment.
It’s more useful if you alert potential prey to your cat’s presence, making it harder to catch them. A collar with a bell is the traditional way to do this; for best results, choose a brightly coloured collar that will stand out and allow prey animals to notice her. Cat collars should always have a quick-release snap so she won’t choke or get injured if the collar snags on something. Some cat-owners swear by brightly coloured fabric hair scrunchies slipped over the cat’s head.
I haven’t tried these because I don’t let my cats out anyway but apparently, they make a good visual deterrent for potential prey animals. Another thing that may help is diverting your cat’s prey drive with teaser toys and games where she can hunt and chase inanimate objects. If you play with her a few times a day, she may be less eager to go out hunting or to bring back her kill when she does. If after all this your cat does manage to snag some unfortunate creature, take it outside and set it on the ground a long way from the property.
Keep doing this every time she brings something back. Let her see you do it. If she brings you something inoffensive, such as a leaf or a toy, praise her and give her a lot of positive attention. She will eventually get the message.
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.