Why Do Cats Kill but Not Eat Their Prey?

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Key Takeaways:

  • Cats have a natural hunting instinct that leads them to kill prey even when not hungry.
  • Cats may kill for variety in their diet or to meet specific nutritional needs.
  • Lack of hunger, lack of killing skills, and preference for the chase over the catch can all cause surplus killing.
  • Playing with prey before killing allows cats to practice skills and release energy.


Cats are prolific and effective hunters. It’s common for cat owners to find their furry friend proudly depositing a dead mouse, bird, or other small animal on the doorstep. But often, it seems the cat had no intention of actually eating their kill. This phenomenon where cats kill prey without consuming it is known as surplus killing.

Why do cats go on these apparent killing sprees without eating what they catch? This article will comprehensively evaluate the key theories and explanations for this feline behavior. Understanding the complex instincts and needs driving your cat can help you accommodate their natural behaviors while also limiting unwanted hunting activities.

The information provided will be invaluable for any cat owner seeking to understand their pet’s hunting habits on a deeper level. After reading, you’ll have new insight into your cat’s motivations, needs, and innate predatory nature. With this knowledge, you can take steps to satisfy your cat’s desires in ways less destructive to local wildlife.

Surplus killing is widespread among cats and has a number of complex causes. By exploring the comprehensive reasons outlined in this article, cat owners can better provide for their pets while also reducing unwanted hunting behaviors. Continue reading to uncover the fascinating science behind why cats kill but don’t eat their prey.

Why Do Cats Kill More Prey Than They Eat?

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need to eat meat to acquire certain essential nutrients. Their status as hypercarnivores means their bodies are adapted for very high protein consumption. This drives cats to hunt frequently. But it doesn’t fully explain why cats often kill way more prey than they actually eat. Here are the key theories behind cat’s surplus killing behaviors.

Do Cats Kill for the Sheer Instinct of It?

Cats are innate hunters, honed by evolution to be consummate predators. They will instinctively stalk and kill prey even when well-fed. This suggests surplus killing stems partially from a deep-rooted predatory drive.

Researchers found most well-fed cats still killed prey animals when given the chance. Well-fed cats killed on average 1 rodent every 17 hours when placed in an enclosure with prey, compared to hungry cats that killed 1 rodent every 6 hours. This demonstrates that cats don’t only kill when prompted by hunger.

Killing for cats is likely linked to instinctive hard-wired behaviors passed down from wild cat ancestors. All felines share the same innate hunting abilities and desires – domestic cats just have fewer opportunities to act on them. When allowed outside, those predatory instincts kick in, and the result is surplus killing.

So one factor in surplus killing is simply cats’ natural hunting instinct and inevitable urge to stalk and kill prey when the opportunity arises. Their enjoyment of hunting may provide mental stimulation too. But instinct alone doesn’t fully explain why cats leave prey uneaten.

Do Cats Kill for Variety in Their Diet?

Another theory is that cats kill surplus prey to add variety to their diet and gain specific nutrients. Since cats are hypercarnivores, they may instinctively try to consume a wide range of prey to obtain all the different nutrients they need.

Adding variety to their food intake by killing different prey items may allow cats to correct nutritional imbalances in their regular diet. Surplus killing from this perspective represents an innate nutritional wisdom passed down from wild cat ancestors.

Domestic cats retain this evolutionary drive to vary their food sources. A pet cat with ample food may still kill mice, birds, lizards, and insects to access different nutrients, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins.

So one motivation for surplus killing is cats tapping into their ancestral ability to balance their nutritional needs by hunting different types of prey, even when well-fed on commercial cat food.

Do Well-Fed Cats Lack the Hunger to Eat Their Prey?

Another simple explanation is that cats may kill prey without subsequently eating it due to a lack of hunger at the time of the kill. Since pet cats generally have full-time access to food, they often hunt and kill when they aren’t hungry enough to consume what they’ve caught.

Research comparing the hunting habits of hungry stray cats vs well-fed pet cats supports this theory. One study of neutered and fed stray cats found they fully consumed over 95% of prey caught. Well-fed pets display much higher rates of surplus killing.

When a pet cat hunts between meals, the lack of hunger presumably deters them from eating prey after catching it. Their natural urge to hunt remains, but hunger’s role in driving consumption seems diminished in cats with consistent access to food.

So pet cats may end up killing for killing’s sake, while stray cats kill primarily to eat. Easy access to food allows pet cats to satisfy predatory instincts without the hunger that would normally prompt them to eat prey.

Do Cats Lack the Killing Skills to Quickly Finish Prey?

Another factor is that domestic cats may lack the skills to swiftly kill prey, which gives prey a chance to escape. Wild cats learn lethal hunting techniques from their mothers. But pet cats are often separated from their mothers early on and miss out on education in dealing the final blow.

Researchers found many domestic cats don’t immediately puncture the skull or neck to finish off prey. Instead they often play with prey for an extended time, releasing it unharmed or inflicting non-lethal injuries before it escapes.

So surplus killing may happen partly because pet cats bungle the execution of their hunting sequences. Their tactics are unrefined enough to permit small animals to escape apparently doomed encounters. More practice and skill could lead to less surplus killing.

Do Cats Enjoy the Thrill of the Chase More Than Eating Prey?

Some experts think cats gain more satisfaction and enrichment from the chase itself rather than actually catching and eating their prey. This may explain why well-fed cats still hunt enthusiastically without consuming most prey.

Cats derive mental stimulation, excitement, and satisfaction from tracking, ambushing, and chasing prey. So for cats, completing the full predatory sequence by killing may not be necessary to reap rewards from hunting. Surplus killing allows them to enjoy the thrill of the hunt without expending energy on eating prey.

The theory is domestic cats have come to value the chase more than the catch. With ready access to food, hunting satisfies their predatory instincts without requiring them to consume prey afterwards.

Do Cats Play With Prey for Practice and Exercise?

Playing with prey before killing also potentially explains instances of surplus killing. This allows cats to hone their hunting skills for future catches. It also offers physical and mental enrichment.

Research on domestic cats and their hunting habits found playing with prey was a common behavior, especially among well-fed cats. Playing provides an outlet for cats to exercise their predatory abilities. It satisfies their urge to hunt while also releasing pent-up energy.

So cats may “play” with prey they have no intention of fully consuming. Surplus killing enables them to engage hunting behaviors and instincts without the incentive of hunger driving them to actually eat prey.

How Can Cat Owners Limit Surplus Killing?

For cat owners, surplus killing can be an annoyance as well as detrimental to local wildlife. But given the complex motivations involved, how can owners discourage these behaviors? Here are some effective strategies:

Provide Enrichment Opportunities

  • Give cats access to climbing towers, puzzle toys, treat balls, and playtime with owners. Mental and physical enrichment reduces predatory behaviors.

Use Deterrents on High-Risk Areas

  • Apply citrus or perfume scents to yard areas where prey are present to discourage stalking.

Consider a Bib or Collar Cover

  • Special collars can prevent cats from catching or killing birds.

Limit Time Outdoors Unsupervised

  • Only let cats out when supervised so hunting can be interrupted. Build an enclosed catio for safe outdoor access.

Work With Your Vet on Solutions

  • Medications, pheromones, or neutering may help reduce surplus killing in some cats.

Reward Non-Predatory Behaviors

  • Use treats, attention, and play to reward calm, relaxed behaviors over restless prowling.

Why Do Cats Bring Home Uneaten Prey?

A related question is why cats proudly bring home prey they don’t eat. Here are some theorized motivations:

  • Showing off their hunting prowess and “providing” for their family.
  • Attempting to teach hunting skills to humans.
  • Displaying dominance by providing food.
  • Act of sharing as a social bonding behavior.

So cats may intend kills as gifts, lessons, or demonstrations of ability and standing in the social unit. Since cats lack language, bringing prey home is a non-verbal way to express themselves and connect with owners.

Key Takeaways: Why Cats Kill But Don’t Eat Prey

  • Cats have an innate predatory drive that persists even with adequate food. Killing is ingrained in their instincts.
  • Variety in prey may allow cats to meet specific nutritional requirements tied to their hypercarnivore status.
  • Well-fed cats often lack the hunger to drive them to actually consume killed prey.
  • Many domestic cats haven’t learned efficient killing tactics, allowing prey to escape and survive.
  • The thrill of the chase offers mental rewards, while eating prey requires energy expenditure.
  • Playing with prey satisfies urges and provides practice while also releasing pent-up energy.
  • Owners can limit unwanted killing by providing enrichment, using deterrents, restricting roaming, and working with their vet.

By understanding these complex motivations, cat owners can better accommodate their pet’s needs while also reducing surplus killing. With the right strategies, owners can keep their cats satisfied and wildlife safe.

About The Author

Scroll to Top