Caturday felid trifecta: Why do cats play with their prey?; cat with a super long tongue; woman escapes Ukraine with her cat; and lagniappe (two!)

October 1, 2022 • 9:45 am

In an 1860 letter to Asa Gray, discussing his inability to accept a kindly God, Darwin wrote this:

But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

So why do cats play with mice (or other prey) before killing them? This is the subject of the LiveScience piece below (click screenshot to read):

The question at hand:

But why do domestic cats chase down and play with prey even after it’s dead? Are they adorable himbos or furry serial killers? The truth lies somewhere in between.

One answer:

To answer this question, we need to look at cat domesticationThe first wild cats to take a tentative step toward domestication probably did so around 8,000 years ago in Egypt and its surrounding regions, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution(opens in new tab). These cats were members of the species Felis silvestris lybica, also known as African wildcats, and were attracted to cities by the rats they hunted for food. Humans, in turn, kept these cats around because they controlled disease-spreading and grain-eating rodent populations. In certain societies, such as ancient Egypt and China, these feline companions came to be considered lucky or even revered.

But while we’ve lived alongside our feline companions for thousands of years, “‘true’ cat domestication can be traced back only to around 200 years ago,” Martina Cecchetti, a conservation scientist who studies cat behavior at the University of Exeter in the U.K., told Live Science. In this context, Cecchetti clarified, “true” domestication means being selectively and intentionally bred by humans, as opposed to simply cohabitating with our species.

Because this selective breeding is recent, the article avers that cats show many of the behaviors of their wild ancestors (by “wild”, they apparently mean “feral”, for surely there was natural selection on the earliest domesticated but non-bred cats to lose some of their fear.

Because they were so recently domesticated, cats retain many of the instincts passed down from their wild ancestors, who hunted small prey throughout the day, according to a 2006 study in The Journal of Nutrition (opens in new tab). This evolutionary remnant drives a cat “to catch prey even if it is not hungry,” Cecchetti said. What’s more, a cat’s play instincts, such as batting, pouncing and raking with claws, are derived from hunting behavior. Wild cats often play with their prey in order to tire it out before eating it, which reduces the cats’ risk of injury. Thanks to these instincts, even modern domestic cat breeds can survive relatively easily in the wild — some Polish populations have been so successful, they are now considered invasive pests(opens in new tab), reported WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station.

The article from J. Nutrition doesn’t mention play, but it is interesting, and contains this sentence:

Morphologically and physiologically domestic cats are highly specialized carnivores, as indicated by their dentition, nutritional requirements, and sense of taste, which is insensitive to both salt and sugars.

At any rate, Cecchetti’s speculation may be correct, but in the end it’s just a guess. Yes, hunting of wild cats, even when they’re not hungry, is surely a leftover from their ancestral behavior, but I wasn’t aware that wild cats play with their prey to tire it out.  And here I don’t just mean repeatedly wounding it, but tossing it about.  If that’s the case, then the speculation is on firmer ground.

The article goes on to estimate the toll that feral or pet cats that go outdoors take on wild birds and small mammals, and gives suggestions about how to satisfy their wild instincts without promoting this carnage:

So how can people stop their furry friends from causing so much ecological damage? Cecchetti’s research suggests(opens in new tab) that some of a pet cat’s drive to hunt can be stymied by providing them adequate play time at home and feeding them high-quality, meat-rich diets that provide the right micronutrient balance.

“Domestic cats are obligate carnivores,” Cecchetti said, so if they aren’t getting enough meat at home, they may seek it out elsewhere.

And this:

But perhaps the best way to ensure that your feline friend doesn’t run amok on your local ecosystem is to keep it indoors (with plenty of toys and 20 square feet, or 1.8 square meters, of space at the bare minimum) or take it outside on a leash. That way, it can unleash its hunting instincts to its heart’s content — without sacrificing the neighborhood wildlife.

Has the author ever tried to leash-train a cat? And how would a leashed cat “unleash its hunting instincts”? No, it’s better to keep it indoors and give it plenty of attention.

***************

Here’s a short video of a cat with an abnormally long tongue that it can’t keep in its mouth. When you “reset it” (which I used to do with my cats, as they look silly with their tongues dangling), the tongue is so long that it will stick back out a bit. The YouTube notes:

The video is of my cat, Porkchop. He is 7 years old and I adopted him in October 2021. He has an abnormally long tongue which causes it to hang out of his mouth at all times. Sometimes it will only stick out a little bit and sometimes it will be hanging out as far as Gene Simmons’ tongue from KISS. When it’s hanging out a lot, we’ll give it a little tap to ‘reset’ him and he’ll pull it back into his mouth and stick it back out just a little. He also likes to play fetch, so we joke around saying he’s more like a dog than a cat. He’s just a super sweet, silly boy!

 

****************

This 3+-minute video will stand for the many cats that have been taken out of Ukraine along with his escaping staff, Jen.  First they went to Budapest, and then wound up on the French Riviera, where Simba learned to walk on a leash. In DodoLand, everything ends well.

*************

Lagniappe: Two cats argue for four minutes: The Japanese YouTube notes give no further information except to advertise a weird cat brush.  One would assume this kind of chinwag would wind up with an attack, but none is shown.

See how long you can stand to listen to it. Or do an experiment by playing the sound for your cat and see how it reacts.

Extra lagniappe: a tweet sent by Matthew showing a very athletic cat leaping into a hanging paper lamp:

h/t: GInger K.

10 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta: Why do cats play with their prey?; cat with a super long tongue; woman escapes Ukraine with her cat; and lagniappe (two!)

  1. Amazing cat argument. I have seen my cat do this with his evil archenemy from across the street, but it never went beyond maybe 30 seconds before exploding into violent, but very short, warfare.

    1. My cat, a Felis lybica, freaked out when she heard it. What I loved most about the video though was the subtitles. I thought Google AI was able to translate subtitles automatically by now.

  2. In re ” an experiment, ” Mz Gemma Gillian l o a t h e d thus.

    Within seconds’ listening time, she leapt
    from her Caturday morning respite – – – upon my left shoulder
    ONTO my thigh and kept searching my face for … …
    the reason as to WHY this brush of a vocalizing ” mess ”
    did not stop tormenting her.

    Blue

  3. “it’s better to keep it indoors and give it plenty of attention”
    Yes. Fie on outdoor cats.
    However, there is a way for a cat to spend time outdoors safely and without leash training: build it a catio.

  4. Two of my cats were napping on a cat tree close to the computer. When I turned up the volume on the cat argument, one didn’t react at all. The other jerked to attention, looked out the window, but didn’t see anything, got up, turned around with his head facing away from the computer, and went back to sleep with his buddy. Two other cats were in the living room, within easy hearing distance, but no one came to investigate. Chilly, rainy Saturday mornings are apparently for sleep, not checking out cat arguments.

    Thanks for posting the video of the Ukrainian woman with her cat. That war makes me crazy, especially with its effects on defenseless animals and defenseless people.

  5. I expect cats “playing” with prey has to do with practicing hunting skills, clearly an adaptive behavior for wild carnivores.

  6. > the best way to ensure that your feline friend doesn’t run amok on your local ecosystem is to keep it indoors

    I agree 100%, which is why I was totally determined that my first cat would be an indoor cat. He was equally determined not to be. From the time he was a kitten, he had an overwhelming, indefatigable, drive to be outdoors. If the door was opened even a crack, the cat would invariably try to escape. Entering my house was an ordeal, because we had to first open the door just wide enough to insert our legs so that we could shove the cat out of the way. We then had to shut the door lightning fast behind us, or he’d have time to zoom by. This maneuver required perfect timing, since the cat would exploit any momentary opening to escape. As a result, for the entire first year of the cat’s life, me and my kids probably wasted an average of 30 minutes a day stalking and recapturing the cat after he succeeded in getting outside. It was exhausting.

    Finally, I reached my limit. One day when he escaped, I said to myself, I give up. The cat wins. Henceforth, he shall be an outdoor cat.

    I felt bad about it, not least because this cat proved to be a real hunter. And he ate what he caught, too. (I now wonder if the kibble I bought was not sufficient to meet his dietary needs??). I knew that all too well, because I would see him carrying little mousies under the porch, and then hear him crunching on their little bones…

    Fortunately, I never had the same problem keeping my other cats indoors. In fact, my second cat was the literal opposite of the first. She actively shunned the outdoors. Even if the door was left wide open, she would seldom even try to cross the threshold. On the rare occasions she did, she never went beyond the front yard. Even then, she only stayed outside long enough to eat a few blades of grass–which she invariably threw up when she came back inside.

    Anyway, this too-lengthy comment is prelude to a question I’ve always had, which is whether other people have ever had cats that were as demented in their determination to be outdoor cats as my first cat was.

    Also, in retrospect, I wonder if my first cat’s life would have been impoverished, somehow, if he’d never been able to satisfy his drive to hunt and roam. That is, keeping some cats happy may not be compatible with keeping a healthy ecosystem. The only solution may be to breed cats without strong drives to hunt and roam. Will they still be cats? That’s a philosophical question, I guess.

    1. The only solution may be to breed cats without strong drives to hunt and roam. Will they still be cats?

      That begs the question – which had occurred to me, specifically for the issue of “playing with your prey” – of how heritable these traits are. The rest of your example indicates that there is considerable variation in the cat population(s), which is one step towards being able to breed a trait into (or out of) a species. But if the trait varies randomly (say, half of litter mates “play” and half don’t) and isn’t heritable, then you’re not going to be able to breed it in or out.
      Neglecting for a moment the other cat species that have been cross-bred into a F.sylv.lybica base, how widely distributed is the “prey play” trait within the original wild cat population? And probably more to the point, who would fund the necessary field work?

  7. Trying to convert one time outdoor stray to inside cat. Played cat arguement video. Cat afrighted. All progress lost.

Leave a Reply