The se­cret life of cats: hunt­ing small an­i­mals

Bray People - - LIFESTYLE - A photo of Pete’s pet dog Kiko is be­ing auc­tioned as a fundraiser for the ISPCA, linked to the new movie “The Se­cret Life of Pets” . See www.ispca.ie for more. PETE WEDDERBURN

THIS is the busiest time of year for cats: they may mis­lead us into be­liev­ing that they are lazy beasts, con­tent to lie around the home. But the truth is that many cats have se­cret lives of busy­ness.

My own cat, Spin, gave me first hand ev­i­dence of this a few years ago. He used to spend his days snooz­ing in our kitchen, wak­ing up for a bite to eat from time to time, and go­ing for an oc­ca­sional stroll in the gar­den. We pre­sumed that he just en­joyed this life of in­ac­tiv­ity. Then we de­cided to do a trial to mon­i­tor ex­actly how much he did when we weren’t watch­ing him. We set him up with a spe­cial col­lar tag that used GPS to track his move­ments. I left the tag on his col­lar for 24 hours, then I plugged it into the USB socket of my com­puter and watched as his foot­steps for the pre­vi­ous day came up as a dot­ted line on Google maps.

His day­time ac­tiv­i­ties were pre­dictable enough: he stayed in our kitchen, out into the back gar­den, then back into the kitchen again. But the sur­prise came at night time, af­ter we’d gone to bed. We had al­ways be­lieved that he con­tin­ued to sleep, as he did in the day­time. He was in the kitchen when we went to bed, and we we came down at break­fast, he was still there. Lit­tle did we know what he did in the in­terim pe­riod.

The GPS tracker showed that around midnight, he ex­ited the kitchen via the cat flap in the back door. And for the next six hours, he was a very busy lit­tle cat. Af­ter do­ing a few cir­cuits of our gar­den, he headed off into our neigh­bours’ gar­dens, walk­ing up to the backs of their houses, then over their perime­ter and across to the next res­i­dence. When I counted, he had vis­ited twenty dif­fer­ent homes in one night. He cov­ered a dis­tance of around 5km, with all of the back­ward and for­ward­ing from place to place. Then around 5.30am, the dot­ted line showed that he headed back to our own back door, let­ting him­self in through the cat flap so that by 6am, he was safely back in our kitchen, curled up in an il­lu­sion of in­no­cence for our ben­e­fit. We now re­alised that there was a good rea­son for his sleepi­ness through­out the day­time.

What was Spin do­ing dur­ing the busy night hours? This re­mained a mys­tery to some ex­tent: I’d have to at­tach a cam­era to his col­lar to find out for sure. But my best guess is that he in­dulged in two com­mon cat ac­tiv­i­ties: so­cial­is­ing and hunt­ing.

Cats are ex­cep­tion­ally so­cial crea­tures. This doesn’t mean that they love spend­ing time with many other cats. In­stead, they are very aware of other cats, mark­ing out their own ter­ri­tory, and do­ing their best to keep other cats out of it. From Spin’s move­ments, I now knew that he had an ex­ten­sive per­sonal realm, and he must also have spent time stalk­ing around other cats’ ter­ri­tory where it ad­joined his own. He prob­a­bly met other cats from time to time, but the main so­cial ac­tiv­ity is ob­ser­va­tion rather than en­gage­ment.

In con­trast, when cats hunt, it’s all about en­gage­ment. Cats are oblig­a­tory car­ni­vores: they have evolved to en­joy eat­ing fresh meat, and the best way to get this is to catch small prey. They are skil­ful preda­tors, with an abil­ity to prowl qui­etly and cau­tiously through un­der­growth, their eyes fixed firmly on the ro­dent or bird that they have spot­ted. They can move so slowly that they look al­most sta­tion­ary, wait­ing un­til the last mo­ment to crouch down into a low-set pose be­fore leap­ing at speed to­wards their tar­get. They then pounce, us­ing their sharp claws to grab their vic­tim, and their long teeth to in­flict dam­age.

Strangely, cats of­ten choose not to kill their prey at once. In­stead, they im­mo­bilise the small crea­tures, then carry them some­where safe (e.g. Into our kitchen) where they re­peat­edly let them go then cap­ture them again. It’s as if they are giv­ing them­selves re­peated lessons on how to catch prey. There’s a rule in the hu­man world that it takes 10000 hours of prac­tice to be­come truly ex­pert in any ac­tiv­ity. Per­haps cats know this in­stinc­tively, re­peat­ing their hunt­ing be­hav­iour time af­ter time to be­come bet­ter and bet­ter. We of­ten come down­stairs in the morn­ing to find ev­i­dence of our cats’ hunt­ing prac­tice, with dead mice and birds, sur­rounded by fur and feath­ers, on our kitchen floor.

Many cat own­ers are dis­tressed by their pets’ hunt­ing be­hav­iour. They are an­i­mal lovers, and they’re upset by the ev­i­dence of an­i­mal suf­fer­ing caused by cats. So can any­thing done to stop cats from hunt­ing?

The old style col­lar and bell does not work: ar­guably, th­ese just teach cats to hunt even more ef­fec­tively as they learn to move even more slowly and im­per­cep­ti­bly than be­fore to pre­vent the bell from mak­ing a sound. A mod­ern equiv­a­lent - the Cat Bib - pre­vents cats from be­ing able to make that fi­nal en­er­getic pounce, al­low­ing the prey to es­cape at the last mo­ment.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, there’s only one ef­fec­tive way of stop­ping cats from hunt­ing: keep them in­doors at night. That’s when cats do most of their preda­tory stalk­ing. If the cat­flat is locked from 11pm to 7am, cats can be pre­vented from car­ry­ing out their nightly strolls and kills.

Pete’s cat Spin used to sleep all day, but what did he do at night?

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