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.
To answer this question, we need to look at cat domestication. The 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.
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:
— Larry the Cat (@Number10cat) September 3, 2022
h/t: GInger K.