Our need to protect small creatures might cause us to feel perplexed and helpless when we watch our feline friends relentlessly playing with mice. That’s when we should remember that cats, like many other animals, still possess predatory instincts inherited from their ancestors.
Cats’ natural instincts to chase and hunt their prey kick in when they spot mice. It might seem that cats play first with their prey before concluding the hunt. Their intent, however, isn’t malicious. Cats do this to gauge the level of threat posed by a mouse.
That being said, there are a couple of answers to the question “why do cats play with mice?” This article takes a closer look at this behavior and dives deep into what causes it. It’ll also examine the differences between what causes this behavior in outdoor cats and indoor cats.
In the journal Animal Behavior, it was reported that cats don’t play with mice—or any prey—because they’re hungry. In fact, the less hungry a cat is, the more likely she’ll play more with the prey.
Cats are known to be opportunistic hunters. It’s in their genetic makeup to readily stalk and catch any prey. That’s why a cat may still play with a mouse, even if it’s just eaten.
Another reason why cats play with mice is boredom. When a cat is living in an unstimulating environment, it can get bored. With its scurrying and skittering, a mouse’s unpredictable movement gives the cat the stimulation and entertainment it wants.
In addition, while it seems like cats play with mice, in some cases it’s a mere strategy to discern the level of risk this prey puts them in. This could also be an attempt to get the mice to move somewhere that doesn’t jeopardize the cats’ safety.
At the end of the day, playing is meant to be fun. While it may not be fun for the mice, cats do enjoy running around and trying to catch them.
Reasons Why Cats Play With Mice
Cats often play with mice for six main reasons:
When you spot an otherwise adorable cat hell-bent on running after an ill-fated mouse, it’s better to leave her be and let nature take its course. This predator-prey dynamic can be found in both animals’ genetic makeup.
From the moment they’re born, cats have the instinct to chase and play with whatever makes itself available. We can witness such behavior when kittens start to learn to hone their skills by ambushing their “prey” and run rapidly.
Kittens who live outdoors may pick up the habit to feed on their prey from their mothers. That’s not to say that indoor cats don’t do this as well. Most cat owners have at least one story about how their cats have caught a mouse or bird inside and ate it.
Cats can have different hunting preferences. For example, some cats enjoy having a challenge, while others prefer taking on easier targets.
No matter the reason, what stands true is that playing and hunting release dopamine in cats’ brains. Activating cats’ predatory instincts creates eager anticipation which allows them to release boredom, stress, or frustration.
For our sake and our cats’, it’s much safer to let these instincts roam free in a somewhat controlled environment. The way to do this is to figure out the reasons why cats play with mice.
Cats may play with mice simply because they’re bored. When your cat is bored, she’ll try to show you that through different behaviors—one of which is chasing and playing with prey. The thrill of running around and trying to catch a mouse helps a cat keep boredom at bay.
For that reason, creating solutions to curb a cat’s boredom may diminish its desire to play with mice.
Looking from an evolutionary perspective, cats “play” with mice as a form of displacement behavior. When they’re playing, cats are actually trying to resolve the conflict between wanting to get rid of the mouse and fearing the risk of getting hurt.
Cats may even play more with their prey the more scared they are from getting injured. This behavior is another inherited instinct. In the wild, cats had to hunt for food. This wasn’t in any way an easy feat.
When wild cats tried to catch their prey, they had to estimate the amount of danger they’d be putting themselves into if the prey tried to defend itself. Domesticated cats nowadays still retain this instinct—whether brought up indoors or outdoors.
As a result, you may witness your cat seemingly tormenting its prey. In a way, this is her way of defending herself against harm.
If a cat constantly finds itself in a state of conflict, this behavior may begin to manifest itself during any state of stress. Displacement behaviors may eventually become compulsive, which the cat won’t have any control over.
That’s why it’s important to make sure that cats aren’t bored often. This can curb their desire to hunt and play. It may also help if a cat doesn’t come into contact with what could be considered prey on a regular basis.
Cats may also continue to play with mice even after they’re long gone. This isn’t necessarily fueled by any malice. It’s more so caused by the cat’s uncertainty of whether the mouse is still alive.
Your cat may continue to bat and poke to make sure that the mouse won’t suddenly get up and retaliate. This behavior is actually quite similar to that of leopards.
What might appear like cat-mouse play could be nothing more than your cat trying to get the mouse to move to a better place.
Because cats can’t be on full alert while they’re feeding, it might be safer for them to eat somewhere that doesn’t leave them vulnerable. There’s also the possibility that a cat wants to save the mouse for later.
For that reason, a cat may spend time “playing” around with a mouse until they reach a safe place. Then, the cat will most likely subdue the mouse to either feed on it or leave it.
Cats won’t necessarily play with mice because they’re hungry. In fact, research shows that a well-fed cat might prolong “playtime” with prey if it’s not hungry.
When your cat spots a mouse, her natural instincts may kick in. Even if she’s just had food, your cat may grab this opportunity to play with the mouse. This will go for as long as your cat doesn’t get bored of the chase or becomes hungry—and the mouse becomes a snack.
Even outdoor cats may play with mice once in a while. Without the hunger factor, they’ll run after the prey, toss it, and try to subdue it until they become hungry enough to feed.
There’s a stark difference between the hunting patterns of outdoor cats and indoor cats. This is driven by the fact that both types of cats hunt and play with prey for completely different reasons.
Outdoor cats don’t always play with prey. Their main goal is to hunt the prey in order to feed. Outdoor cats, unlike indoor cats, use their predatory instinct often. So, it doesn’t build up without release. When an outdoor cat spots a mouse, it’ll most likely hunt it to eat it, no play involved.
Indoor cats, on the other hand, may end up unintentionally suppressing their predatory instinct because they have no use for it. This instinct doesn’t always fade away, manifesting itself as an outlet for an indoor cat’s unsatisfied needs.
According to VCA, a cat’s predatory instincts aren’t driven by hunger. So, even if your cat is well-fed, she’ll still react to the presence of a prey.
If your cat goes outside often, it’s advisable to get her vaccinated and give her parasite-prevention medication. You may also need to get her checked up regularly because cats can carry asymptomatic illnesses.
In order to protect yourself, you should wash your hands well after coming in contact with your cat. You should also avoid kissing her or letting her lick your face.
Even though cats were domesticated almost 10,000 years ago, they still possess their natural instincts to hunt prey from their wild ancestors. Most cats won’t necessarily kill and eat their prey, but the thrill of the hunt itself can be the driving force behind this behavior.
This behavior is quite natural. It’ll also depend on the cat’s hunger level. A hungry cat will spend almost no time playing around with a mouse. A cat that hasn’t worked up an appetite yet, on the other hand, can indulge in prolonged play time.
Moreover, these playful behaviors are sometimes a cat’s way to gauge the risk of getting bitten or scratched by its playmate. This behavior is hardwired within cats to protect them from larger, more dangerous prey.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Film/Video/Media Studies, as well as an associates degree in Communications. I began producing videos and musical recordings nearly 15 years ago. I am a guitarist and bassist in Southwest MI and have been in a few different bands since 2009, and in 2012 I began building custom guitars and basses in my home workshop as well. When I’m home, I love spending time with my three pets (a dog, cat, and snake) and gardening in my backyard. I also like photographing wild birds, especially birds of prey.