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Cat Feeding Behavior

The feeding behaviors of cats in the wild reflect the species preference for animal tissues

Wild cats devour their entire prey, including muscles, organs, bones, offal, skin, viscera, etc. but often avoid consuming plant materials contained in the entrails. Domestic cats do not readily accept food served at temperature extremes. Food offered near body temperature is most preferred considering that in the wild, a cat’s diet is freshly killed prey with normal body temperature at the time of consumption.

Young kittens begin to exhibit predatory behavior from the age of about six weeks. In the home, the queen may be seen bringing small pieces of meat or live prey to the nest box, making an unusual sound to attract her kittens’ attention. She may paw the meat towards the kittens or throw the prey into the air, pouncing on it as it lands. Live prey that is carried some distance is disoriented and easier to recapture or play with. The kittens may be fascinated with the game and join in or may appear rather worried at the entire process. Occasionally, a kitten will leap on the meat or prey and making threatening growls, gobble it down. Quite often the queen will start to play with the kittens but then eat the meal herself. At this stage of development, the kittens start to practice hunting; crouching in ambush, pouncing on one another and attacking each other from behind hiding places. The queen also encourages pouncing and grasping behavior by sitting quietly beside the nest and waving her tail from side to side to provide an irresistible target for the kittens’ inquisitive paws.

Cats normally prefer to hunt alone and within the confines of their own territory, they will have favorite ambush and stalking places. Some cats roam long distances from home, to visit particular hunting grounds. Very occasionally cats from the same family learn to hunt together; each seeming to sense the others’ intentions as they work out strategic positions and cooperate in carefully timed attacks.

When driven by hunger, a cat is more likely to scavenge than to hunt – it’s much easier to find scraps from a cooked chicken carcass than to hunt patiently for a mouse. On a full stomach, however, the most meticulously bred, endearing cat will still be a hobby hunter, impelled to stalk and capture. Feral cats are better hunters than domestic pets and nursing mothers are the best hunters. Studies of Swiss farm cats found that queens took on average just over a minute and a half to capture a rodent, catching something every third or fourth pounce, while non-mothers took almost three times as long and caught every twelfth pounce.

The cat can hunt successfully in the twilight periods of dusk and dawn because it has excellent vision, even in poor light. The acute hearing enables the location of prey and the whiskers or vibrissae, and sensitive hairs at the ear tips allow the cat to feel its way through dense and entwined underbrush. The soft paw pads and retracted claws assist silent, speedy movement, while the powerful hindquarters provide propulsion whenever an attacking run or spring is required. The cat attacks in a swift bounding leap, and grasping its prey with extended claws, it holds it until a disabling bite is delivered. Hungry cats generally dispatch their prey quite quickly, usually with the efficient neck bite practiced during kitten hood.

The well-fed cat, excited by the stalk, hunt, and capture, may play with the prey for some time before the kill is made. Even the most gentle of cats will hunt if given the chance, for, despite centuries of domestication, the cat still has a great drive to seek out and catch other small animals.

Cats are opportunist hunters, taking what is available. Most prey upon land animals and reptiles, but some, learning from their mothers and their experiences, become adept at catching birds. There are local variations in cats’ prey; in the German study of cats’ stomach contents, the rural cats had eaten 14 different species of animals, while the urban cats had eaten only cat food and a single grasshopper. Prey also varies on a larger scale. North American cats eat mice, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, and robins. European cats hunt mice, voles, sparrows, and fledgling birds, taking shrews only when they are very hungry. In southern Sweden, males catch more rabbits than do smaller females. Kittens around the world and adults in the tropics eat spiders and insects. On subantarctic islands, noddies, terns, and penguins are consumed. In Australia, where cats were imported in order to control the introduced European rabbit, they will also eat opossums, reptiles, and ground-nesting birds.

If the cat decides to eat large prey, such as a rabbit or hare, the entrails are devoured first. After a rest, the cat may then eat the entire carcass, even though it weighs almost as much as its own body, in which case it will likely fast for several days before hunting again. With smaller prey, the cat may eat the head first and then devour the rest of the body, including all fur or feathers and bone, regurgitating any undigested parts an hour or two later. Cats eating fresh prey regularly rarely drink because of the high fluid content of the carcasses. Pet cats fed only processed foods must always have access to fresh drinking water. Eating fresh prey also keeps the cat’s teeth and gums in good condition and the jaw muscles well exercised.

The sporting aspect of predatory behavior may be most easily observed in a cat hunting prey across open ground when every ounce of its skill is required for even a chance of success. The cat first approaches as near to the prey as it can, using every conceivable means of cover. When it is within reasonable striking distance, the cat flattens its body to the ground and continues on a forward course, gliding over the ground with belly pressed to the earth, head outstretched on the fully extended neck and ears turned forward to catch every sound. The hips and shoulder blades provide the highest points of its stalking outline and these are kept level and low. When the cat senses that the time is right, it builds up momentum by swinging its hips and tail, and then, with a sudden burst of pent-up energy, the body shoots forward in a fast attack.

Playing with disabled or dead prey allows the cat to practice its pouncing and trapping techniques. Highly aroused by such games, the cat may continue to toss the carcass around for an hour or so, diving and leaping upon it, patting it under objects and hooking it out again with extended claws, passing it under its own body to rake at it with the hind legs, ignoring the prey while licking a paw and then, as if seeing it for the first time, diving on it again with enthusiasm.

Following some hunts, a cat may literally dance with delight, taking high, curving pantomime leaps. This is most common after dangerous prey, such as a rat, has been killed. Termed “overflow play”, this appears as a cathartic release from the tension of the hunt.

Feral Menu
With paws committed to killing and climbing, not digging or running, cats have a short attack range. To get close enough to attack, cats stalk their prey. The feline stalk – head, and body held low, intermittent fast approaches when the prey is not looking, the final sway and explosive leap – is almost universal. Once grappling with prey, cats kill efficiently, as any one-to-one assassin must. The faster the prey is disabled, the less likely the cat will sustain a crippling injury.

The canine teeth of cats function as long, sharp daggers, stabbed into the prey’s neck. They are exactly the right width to avoid the vertebrae and wedge the gaps between them, prising apart the bones to sever the spinal cord. Indeed, “canine” teeth fit cat to prey as hand to glove. The canine daggers can feel their way to the killing spot, being well supplied with nerves. Combined with very rapid testing bites, this enables the cat to chart the correct path at lightening speed. The stabbing power to wield these dagger teeth necessitates bulging jaw muscles working on a short, compact muzzle. As a result, modern cats have no space left for several cheek teeth that once fitted into the longer muzzles of their ancestors.

Wild cats are able to subdue prey almost as large as themselves and tend to avoid prey that is spiny, has shells, or has an offensive odor. Unlike most mammals, cats do not display a regular rhythm in sleep-wake patterns, activity, feeding and drinking. Cats typically eat 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day and night. This eating pattern probably reflects the evolutionary relationship of cats and their prey. Domestic cats are generally solitary hunters. Small rodents (voles and mice) make up 40% or more of the feral domestic cat diet; however, young rabbits and hares may compose a large portion of prey. A variety of other prey (birds, reptiles, frogs, and insects) are also taken, but in smaller amounts. The average mouse provides an estimated 8% of a feral cat’s daily energy requirement. Thus repeated cycles of hunting throughout the day and night are required to provide sufficient food for the average cat. Occasionally, cats eat grass in order to clear their stomach of indigestible food, like bones, fur, and feathers.

The feeding behaviors of cats in the wild reflect the species preference for animal tissues. Wild cats devour their entire prey, including muscles, organs, bones, offal, skin, viscera, etc. but often avoid consuming plant materials contained in the entrails. African lions have been observed to first empty the ingesta from the entrails by expressing the contents with their tongue. Feeding temperature also influences food acceptance by cats. Domestic cats do not readily accept food served at temperature extremes, whereas food offered near body temperature (38.5 degrees C) is most preferred. This is logical considering that in the wild, a cat’s diet is freshly killed prey with normal body temperature at the time of consumption.

Among the largest and most powerful of the cat family, lions have developed effective strategies for survival. They are the only cats that regularly work together to make a kill and share the spoils more or less democratically. Like most carnivores, lions work hard for their food and bring down large animals, such as zebras and antelopes, which are their usual prey. They also take giraffe and smaller animals and will eat carrion. As soon as the prey is dead, a single lion will often drag its catch to a secluded spot. The abdomen is opened, and the meal usually starts with the entrails, favoring organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Some lions will often then bury the stomach and intestines, but frequently just make an attempt at doing this. Why they do this is unknown. Other lions will eat everything in the body cavity except the stomach, showing a strong preference for the intestines. The meal then proceeds with the hindquarters, which is the fleshiest part of the animal. The lions will then work forward towards the head. It is also unusual for lions to open the skull. Individuals in a group of lions feeding will go for whatever they can get their teeth into, with the strongest individuals getting the best morsels. If the pride male is present, he will often (but not always) keep the kill for himself, until he is sated. The females eat next, and then, the cubs. In some locales, the males prefer the flesh and will start eating the hindquarters of a fresh kill while the females fight over the entrails. Lions are scavengers, too. They will eat almost anything they find dead. For many old lions too old to run down live game, scavenging may be their only way to find food.

Although tigers hunt alone, a kill may be shared by several adults. Prey living in dense, forested areas, where tigers are found, tend to be more scattered in distribution. Prey consists of whatever unwary or vulnerable creature happens to stray across their path including deer and wild boar. Deer species may include sambar, chital, sika deer, swamp deer, and hog deer, among others. Depending on the habitat, tigers may also eat antelope, buffalo, guar, domestic livestock, peafowl, monkeys, civets, porcupines, fish, frogs, crabs, large monitor lizards, pythons, and young elephants or rhinos. Grass, fruits, and berries are also eaten. Tigers kill animals of all ages and physical conditions, including animals in their prime. Because of their size and build, tigers can kill prey large enough to provide meals for several days. Tigers can consume 20 to 35 kg (44-77 lb.) of food at a meal; but they usually eat about 15 to 18 kg (33-40 lb.) of food a day, over several days.

Leopards are stealthy and solitary hunters, sometimes stalking prey over very long distances. Leopards prey on anything from the size of a mouse to a mammal twice their weight - including wildebeest, gazelle, deer and young giraffes and small prey, such as monkeys, and mice. Certain prey may be disemboweled and the entrails buried, and birds will usually be carefully plucked before eating. Leopards seem to dislike fur and feathers and rid them by shaking their head vigorously. Leopards often kill more than they require immediately, and hide their kill either in a tree or a hole, returning later to finish it.

Jaguars are good climbers, but they are thought to hunt mainly on the ground. These solitary hunters will feed on almost anything that’s available, including lizards, snakes, capybara, caiman, small mammals, deer, fish, turtles, and cattle. The jaguar’s strong jaws and robust canine teeth enable it to kill livestock weighing three to four times its own weight, often with a lethal bite to the back of the skull rather than seizing the neck or throat as many other large cats do.

The main diet of the Puma consists of deer. Other prey includes beavers, porcupines, hares, raccoons, opossums, elk and feral hogs. The kill is often dragged to a secluded spot and, after the cat has eaten its fill, it may cover the carcass with vegetation. Large prey can provide enough food for a week or more.

Cheetahs hunt by daylight, often in the late morning and early evening when competition is less keen. They take animals such as gazelles, impalas, wildebeest calves and hares, stalking their quarry until close enough to make a sudden dash and then pursuing them in a short and dramatic high-speed chase.

There are five species within the genus Lynx; the Caracal, Bobcat, the North American Lynx, the Eurasian Lynx and the Spanish Lynx. The diet of Lynxes varies with the region they inhabit, however, their food choices are similar, consisting of birds, rodents, rabbits and hares, caribou calves, ducks and fallow deer fawns.

Servals and Ocelots are both medium-sized cats with very different evolutionary histories and although they live on different continents, they both make their living catching essentially the same kind of food – small rodents. The Serval is a highly specialized rodent catcher and almost exclusively a ground hunter. Although rodents are the preferred food, it will also eat frogs, lizards, mole rats, small birds, and insects. The Ocelot is largely nocturnal and hunts in dense forest cover. Prey chiefly comprises rodents and other small mammals, but they sometimes take animals as large as an agouti or catch birds, fish, snakes, lizards and land crabs.


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