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Look what the cat dragged in

Look what the cat dragged in

Why do our cats bring us unpleasant “gifts” such as half-dead mice? Do they face health risks by eating their quarry? And is it possible to redirect their instinct to stalk and pounce on prey? Jo Leevers hunts down some answers

Whether your beloved puss presents you with a bird, a mouse or nice juicy earthworm, many cat owners have good reason to take the phrase “Look what the cat dragged in” rather literally. Indeed, opening the kitchen door first thing in the morning to find a mouse – or the remains of one – has to be one of the less enjoyable aspects of life with a cat.

An appetite for danger

But putting our squeamish issues aside, are there any health risks to your cat eating parts of the animals or birds it catches? Most vets believe that any risk is minimal, although eating voles may carry a very small a risk of infection with mycobacterium microti, the cause of TB in voles. The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) says this is just one reason why it’s vital to make sure your cat is up-to-date with worming and vaccinations.

Fleas and ticks can sometimes be a problem, as wild animals won’t be protected against these and your cat could pick them up. Again, the solution is very simple: responsible pet ownership, with people caring for their cats by checking regularly for parasites and using approriate preventative treatments, as recommended by their vet.

If your cat catches a rodent that has ingested rat poison, there is a slight risk of second-hand poisoning. But a more likely and dangerous possibility is your cat nibbling rat pellets herself. Symptoms include lethargy, spasms, lack of coordination, vomiting, diarrhea and salivating – and you should consult your vet immediately.

Irrestistable nibbles

Animals aren’t the only thing that your cat might consume: anti-freeze that has been spilt onto the road is a serious toxic risk in autumn and winter. Unfortunately, cats seem to like the taste, and it can be easily trodden in then licked off paws, or lapped up in a rainwater puddle. Early symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, drooling and lack of coordination, followed by loss of appetite and excessive or very little urination. It is vital to get help from your vet as soon as possible: ‘Early treatment results in the best outcomes,’ adds a spokesperson for the BSAVA. And it goes without saying that you should keep your own supply of anti-freeze well out of the reach of your cat (or any others).

A year-round item on the cat menu is grass, thought to purge their system by clearing out fur balls, feathers, parasites or bones. Your cat will usually self-regulate the amount she eats, but if she’s grazing at an alarming rate, consult your vet to rule out any underlying medical issues. If she is off her food and gagging, she may have a particularly stiff bit of grass stuck in the back of her throat. Robin Hargreaves of the British Veterinary Association advises: ‘This is not usually dangerous but it is distressing, and needs a general anaesthetic to remove it.’

The reasons behind unwelcome gifts

Calling your vet is the first line of action with any health issue, but what if you’re simply facing yet another gift of the furry or feathered variety that you’re not very keen on receiving?

For owner Vanessa Talbot, things came to a head when her tabby, Lulu, trotted into the living room on Christmas Day with her own festive dinner – a plump thrush – in front of assorted grandchildren and other family members. Mayhem ensued. ‘I’m not naturally squeamish, but that was a catch too far,’ Vanessa says.

To address the behaviour of keen stalkers such as Lulu, we need to understand what drives cats to hunt in the first place, explains Pippa Hutchison, clinical animal behaviourist at Positive Imprint. ‘It helps if we accept that cats are solitary survivors designed to look after themselves – and that includes hunting for food, regardless of whether a human opens a pouch of cat food each morning,’ she says. ‘It’s a natural instinct and it also helps keep them agile and fit.’ Your pet’s hunting drive can also relate to their parentage: ‘That instinct is partly genetic, so if her mum was a good mouser there’s a good chance your cat will follow suit,’ says Pippa.

We don’t know eactly why cats present their prey to dismayed owners (as opposed to dispatching it in the garden), but one theory is that your cat is taking on the role of a teacher, particularly if she’s female. The present isn’t a token or a tribute so much as a lesson. A mother cat in the wild brings home prey that is still alive in order to teach her kittens how to kill. You’re simply her surrogate family. And as she’s never seen you catch a tasty mouse by yourself, well, it seems like you have a lot of learning to do!

How to react to a gift

So what should you do when your cat proffers a gift that causes you disgust or even distress? Take a deep breath and avoid making a scene, advises Pippa. ‘If you tell off your cat or shout it won’t necessarily discourage her, but it will damage your trust-based relationship. Your cat won’t understand your reaction and may become offhand. Her thinking could be, “Well, you’re unpredictable, so I’ll distance myself”.’

Instead, gently remove your cat from the room and clean up the mess, using rubber gloves. If the animal is delivered still alive (not unusual, as this replicates how a mother cat trains her kittens) you may need to kill it, as humanely and swiftly as possible. Pippa says: ‘If it was me, I wouldn’t prolong the animal’s agony.’ She points out that if your cat has just presented this to you, she is going to be in a highly aroused state. So, once you’ve dealt with the gift, try to occupy her with a toy as a way to redirect her energy to more palatable pursuits.

Redirecting the urge to hunt

As caring owners, we need to allow our pets to express their natural urges. ‘A cat needs to be given a range of outlets for the key hunting activities of stalking and pouncing, otherwise she is going to get frustrated and her urge could manifest itself in problems such as chasing and biting ankles,’ says Pippa.

However, there are some steps you can take that could help to minimise the damage done to the wildlife that we also want to preserve.

You could consider shutting the cat flap at dawn and dusk (favourite hunting times) and keep your cat occupied instead. This is particularly important after heavy rain or when it is particularly cold, as it allows hungry birds to come out and feed in greater safety.

In the early evening, have a selection of toys at the ready. These can include fishing rod toys and feathery balls for pouncing, chasing and stalking, or try the Kong Kickeroo, which lets her “rake” with her hind legs (a movement used in the wild for disembowelling small prey).

‘Make sure you end the game with a small food reward,’ adds Pippa. ‘If the game just finishes abruptly, there’s a danger your cat will get frustrated, possibly thinking, “What was the point of that? I might as well go out and do the job properly with a real mouse”.’ In households with more than one cat, give each cat a different playtime to avoid rivalries developing.

If you don’t always have time for games, you can still make your cat work a little harder to track down food. Try placing her portion of dry food in a dish on a windowsill or in a bowl behind sofa, as cats love squeezing into tricky spaces.

Better chances for birds

If you’re worried about your cat catching birds, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recommends adding a bell to your cat’s collar, to help warn birds of their advance. Ensure the collar is correctly fitted and has a quick-release mechanism in case of snagging. And when you’re feeding birds (especially to help them through the winter), make sure that bird tables and feeding poles are kept well away from branches or fences from which your cat might make a leap.

Interestingly, the RSPB is not in favour of outlawing cats’ freedom to roam. A spokesperson says: ‘While we understand why people feel this way, we have no scientific evidence of the impact of cat predation on bird populations that is strong enough to support such a call.’

In summary, you can’t and shouldn’t try to curtail your cat’s natural hunting instincts, but you might be able to apply distraction or redirection techniques to help reduce the harm to wildlife – and where you can’t protect other animals, you can at least protect your cat with robust vaccination and pest control. In the meantime, enjoy playtime (and watch your fingers!)

For information about household hazards for cats, see our video.