Why do cats play with their food?

12 February 2019

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Question

Why do cats play with the food they catch?

Answer

We received this question from Annie. It was over to supervet Stuart Eves from Cambridge University to dish up an answer

Stuart - Sure. I mean it's an excellent question and there's really two trains of thought, one of which I don't really buy in to, which is that it's there to tire them out. The idea being that if you tire them then the mouse is unlikely to bite the cat's paw or something.

One of the ideas I do really buy into is the idea that you're testing the fitness of your prey. So if we think about mice, they could have eaten poison and what they're doing is they're making sure that the mouse is behaving normally. Such that it can fight back that it's behaving normally. One of the big threats to cats certainly is a parasite called Toxoplasma which can alter the mouse's behaviour actually. It makes them much more bold. And so if the cat gets a feeling that this mouse isn't behaving normally, it may kill it but it might not eat it. It's along those lines and that rings true for me. That seems reasonable.

Chris - Jason?

Jason - Is toxoplasma bad for cats?

Stuart -  It's not particularly bad for the cat, it can cause them to lose litters of kittens, it's incredibly bad for people, it's incredibly bad for almost every mammal. But the cat is the definitive host. This is where the toxoplasma wants to be and where it breeds. And as such actually it tries not to hurt the cat.

Chris - So if a human catches toxoplasma then it gets into all out issues, including our brain. And some people suggested it may even change human behavior. So are you saying then that when toxoplasma goes into a cat it doesn't go through the cat's body and into all its tissues and its brain like that?

Stuart - Well it would certainly circulate around but it's the idea that it's got to get to a position where it can pass to other generations of cats and, of course, eventually get back into a host.

Chris - So it doesn’t want to kill the cat?

Stuart - It doesn't wanna kill the cat. It's got no advantage in killing the cat actually but it finds itself accidentally in other mammals.

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