The cat is a natural carnivorous predator, but it is not a completely instinctive hunter. The urge to hunt successfully is induced and honed by competition and demonstration; the skills are learned by observation, and trial and error. Cats are not born good bird-catchers, for example - in fact until they have thoroughly practised the art over and over again. They are downright bad at it.
Learning from mother and other cats is essential, and a good teacher makes a good pupil. the offspring of non-hunting cats rarely make good hunters themselves. There may also be a genetic factor. The cat's hunting technique is inherited originally from its forest-dwelling ancestors, for whom ambush was more rewarding than the chase.
Once the cat has located a suitable victim by means of its senses, it begins to approach slowly and cautiously, using every bit of available cover. Next, to cross any open space, it travels forward rapidly in a movement known as the "slink-run", its body pressed close to the ground to reduce its outline. The slink-run is broken by pauses when the cat stops and stares intently at the prey.
After several such runs and pauses, the cat reaches a patch of cover nearest to the prey from where the final attack can be launched over a relatively short distance. Here it "ambushes": lying crouched, eyes glued to the prey, hind feet making treading movements as if revving up for the charge, and tail-tip twitching in feverish anticipation.
Suddenly the final attack is mounted. The cat breaks cover and shoots forward, body still held fairly close to the ground. When it it within striking distance, it raises its fore parts and leaps on to its prey. While the fore paws pin down the victim, the hind feet act as anchors planted solidly on the ground.
Now comes the kill.
If the prey starts to struggle, the cat may release it briefly and then repeat the final attack in order to get a better grip. Alternatively, it may throw itself on to its side, keeping hold with the fore paws but releasing the hind paws in order that they can rake powerfully, claws extended, at the victim.
The killing bite of a cat, domestic tabby or jungle tiger, is a remarkably well organized affair. All felines tend to use a neck bite. The prey is usually killed by dislocation of the vertebrae in the neck.
It is fascinating to note that the distance between the left and right fang teeth of a cat is the same as the distance between the neck joints of its usual prey. A domestic cat has its fang teeth aligned for dislocating the neck of a mouse, and the tiger is designed to do the same to its favourite meals, deer and wild pig.
There are special nerves linked to the fang teeth of the cat that sense in the twinkling of an eye when the points of the teeth are perfectly positioned over the neck joints of the prey. These nerves then send ultra-fast messages to the brain, which responds in turn by sending messages to the jaw muscles, instructing them to close at an unusually high speed and thereby perform the dislocation. The neck-bite of a cat is a brilliant "computer-controlled" process.
Learning To Hunt
Domestic queens, like the females of other feline species, teach their kittens how to perfect their killing techniques in a graduated series of lessons. First, the queen carries home prey that she has killed and eats it in the presence of her offspring. A little later she leaves killed prey for the kittens to eat, and then finally, when they are two-and-a-half to three months old, she brings home live prey, presents it to her young and lets them kill it. She does not help them to make the kill, but if the prey escapes from them, she will catch it and re-present it so they can try again. Similar behaviour has been recorded in, for example, cheetahs and tigers.
It is competition among the litter mates that, by raising their excitement and enthusiasm, stimulates kittens to make their first neck-bite kills. The learning process is delicate; if no kills are made during the developmental period, the cat finds it difficult if not impossible to learn how to do it later. A hand-reared kitten denied the opportunity to make its first kill at the right time in its development will grow into a non-killer that shows little interest in mice or other small prey.
Domestic cats will swipe at anything that moves, but the hunt proper is reserved for small creatures such as mice, birds, and, (worth remembering), pets such as hamsters.
I don't know whether the story of a ginger tom hunting down, killing, and eating a tiny Chihuahua dog that lived in the house next door is apocryphal or not. It is not true to say that cats are better hunters if they are kept hungry, nor that neutered cats are worse mousers than unneutered ones. Plump and well-fed cats are often the best guardians of granaries and food stores. What makes a good, rather than a merely competent, mouser is what makes one human a champion athlete - inborn and probably inherited talent. The instinct of the domestic cat is to hunt, almost for hunting's sake, unlike the bigger wild cats that tend only to hunt in order to fill their stomachs.
Coping With A Hunting Cat
The successful hunter bears the spoils proudly to his home, and the cat is frequently no exception. Brimming with satisfaction, it delivers a dead mouse or young rabbit to your door, or actually deposits it on the carpet at your feet. Don't scold or try to punish your pet; it is just showing affection towards someone " in the family" by giving a present. Wild cats do it as a social gesture, and you should feel honoured to be so highly thought of. Try to dispose of the gift as promptly and hygienically as possible - though your cat will find it difficult to understand why you dash out to the trash can with the mouse held by its tail between finger and thumb, instead of settling down to eat it!
Those cats that do learn through practice how to catch wild birds can cause havoc among your garden's feathered visitors. Site all bird feeding devices that you may have in the open so that your cat is denied cover for stalking. Fitting a bell to the cat's collar can be useful as a warning to birds, but i have known cats that still manage to catch birds despite having been "belled". One in particular actually scooted along on three legs holding the bell pressed silently to its throat by a fore paw.
Don't be alarmed if your cat insists on catching and eating flies. It's just another form of the hunt and it will not, as is sometimes claimed, "make the cat grow thin". Flies can carry disease bacteria or parasite eggs, but the risk is low and not worth worrying about.
Domestic cats exhibit great skill in hooking fish out of shallow ponds as I, and my goldfish, know to our cost. Some wild species, such as the fishing cat, flat-headed cat and jaguar, are even better
fish poachers. Big cats such as the lion and tiger tend to eat their meals while lying crouched down, probably to hide their meal from predators, but domestic cats prefer to sit neatly on their haunches or remain standing.
The feral cat (a domestic cat returned to the wild) eats a diet similar to that of its small wild cat relatives - small rodents, other mammals up to the size of a hen, insects and, when available, lizards.