Most parents repeatedly tell their kids not to play with their food, but they do it anyway. Similarly, a large number of cats play with their food though it appalls most owners to see their cat apparently torturing a bird or small rodent in what seems like a cruel game.
Actually, the way that cats let go of and then recapture their prey is not a way for them to have fun, but rather a way for the cats to protect themselves from serious injury. Cats kill their prey by breaking the spinal cord with a strong bite to the neck. If a cat must let go of the animal in order to grab it on the neck, that cat is risking escape or retaliation by their prey.
The prey that cats hunt have weapons of their own and a cat can easily be injured by them. For an animal such as a cat with a short muzzle to reach the neck of an animal, even one that is already caught, is to risk injury to the eyes or face. Rodents such as mice and rats can bite and scratch, and a bird can inflict a lot of damage by either biting or pecking with a sharp beak. So cats tire out their prey before making a killing bite in order to minimize their own risk of injury.
A study done decades ago investigated the playful behavior that cats often exhibit with their prey. The scientist Maxeen Biben presented cats with different sizes of prey. The small prey were mice and the large prey were rats. Some cats were hungry, others were very hungry, and some cats had recently eaten. Biben found that when cats were given a rat, they were more likely to play with it if they were very hungry than if they had just eaten or were only a little hungry. She suggested that cats have to be very hungry to attempt to kill large prey such as a rat, and that they must perform these playful behaviors in order to be able to make the kill safely. A large prey animal such as a rat is even more likely than a small animal like a mouse to seriously injure the cat with scratches or bites, either of which can become infected and result in the cat's death.
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Another finding in Biben's study is that cats played with their small prey less when they were hungrier. Cats who had recently eaten tended to play with their mice prey longer, only killing it once the prey had become so tired that the cat could easily kill it safely. Hungrier cats played for shorter periods of time before killing mice. Perhaps when they were hungrier, they were more willing to risk injury, since the benefit of killing more quickly was being able to eat sooner.
The next time you notice your children playing with their food, recast their behavior as "catlike" and applaud their excellent self-preservation skills.
Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a certified applied animal behaviorist, certified pet dog trainer, author and an adjunct faculty in NAU's Department of Biological Sciences.