Why Do Cats Bring You Dead Animals? What Are They Trying to Say?

Written by Joan W.
Published: July 23, 2022
Image Credit Fazlyeva Kamilla/Shutterstock.com
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If your cat goes outdoors, you may have come home to a dead mouse, lizard, bird, or rabbit. My last indoor/outdoor cat named Oz would bring something in at least once a month. Often, the little creature was still alive. 

I remember getting up in the middle of the night and putting on rubber gloves to catch and release a live mouse hiding under living room furniture. Another time, it was a baby rabbit who survived by wedging himself behind the dresser in my room. Two days after Oz passed, I found a tail-less lizard and was able to trap and return him to the yard.

As cuddly and loving as our sweet kitties are, it can be hard to rectify their hunter’s instinct. Cleaning up the stiff carcass of a bird or mouse is never fun. Plus, our cats get enough food, so why do they hunt and bring their trophies inside?

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There are several possible reasons your adorable feline friend brings you presents. Granted, your cat doesn’t know what kind of gifts you would most enjoy. However, the bottom line is that your cat’s habits come from highly evolved survival instincts.

Here are four common explanations for your cat’s gracious (though gross) presents.

Ancient Hunting Instincts

Scientists estimate cats were first domesticated as far back as 12,000 years ago. Even so, they’ve retained the keen hunting instincts of their wild ancestors through thousands of generations. It is as natural for cats to hunt as it is to breed and care for their young.

The first possible reason your pet may bring you small creatures is her natural, ingrained instinct to hunt and retrieve. She wants to bring her prey back to a safe place. 

Expressing Appreciation to Their Family

However, hunting instinct alone does not explain why your cat may leave her prize in an obvious place where she knows you will find it. One summer, Oz left two different birds on top of my bed. While this meant a horrifying afternoon of very hot laundry for me, he clearly wasn’t hiding the prize to keep for himself. He left it where I was sure to find it.

A common explanation for your cat’s gifts is that they are her highest compliment to the family she lives with and loves. She wants to share her catch with you or possibly thank you for the love and food you give her.

Play

My favorite part of raising a kitten is the toys. My cats always love the wand toy with the feathers or stuffed animal at the end of a long string. In between play sessions, I have to hide the whole thing, or they will retrieve it and bring it to me endlessly.

Some behavioralists theorize that cats bring us their prey in an effort to get us to get up and join them in the playful thrill of the hunt. From a cat’s point of view, who wouldn’t want to stalk small creatures in their spare time?

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Passing On Their Hunter’s Wisdom

In the wild, mother cats teach their young ones to hunt. When they are very small, the mother will bring the prey to their offspring. As the young cats get older and gain skills, they will hunt with their mother and learn how to do it safely and well.

Some people theorize that cats with no young still naturally want to pass on their hunting skills. Since we are their family, and since we are clearly very poor hunters (from a cat’s point of view), they may be trying to help train us to provide for ourselves. 

For female cats, this could be viewed as her natural motherly instincts. In particular, if she brings back her prey only partially killed on purpose. She may be inviting her family to learn how to hunt by starting the process for you.

However, my cat Oz was all male and he was the most prolific hunter of all of my indoor/outdoor cats. (Sorry, wildlife, I am keeping my cats indoors now.) So while this may be part of the story, it is not all of it.

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How to Prevent Your Cats From Killing Wildlife

Some people keep cats specifically for their hunting abilities. If you have a rat or rabbit infestation or would like to keep the squirrels out of your yard, an outdoor cat can help enormously. However, if you don’t want your cat to hunt, the most obvious preventative measure is to keep them inside.

Another way to soften their natural hunter’s instinct is to play with them regularly. If you wear them out with the teaser wand toy or another of their favorites, they will have less desire to go out and stalk the little creatures in your yard.

It is worth putting some effort into preventing your cat from hunting too often. As a group, they kill billions of animals every year. Though natural, this habit is an unnecessary challenge to wildlife that already faces many obstacles to survive and thrive. 

For cats without a comfortable home and a family to feed them, their ability to hunt means they can survive. Not all outdoor cats hunt, however. Some prefer to lounge around and enjoy the changes of the day.

A few other steps you can take to stop your well-fed and loved pet from hunting include:

  • Put a bell on its collar
  • Place any birdfeeders well out of reach
  • Keep them indoors during the night and early morning when wildlife is most vulnerable

If your cat’s hunting instincts are strong and you cannot get them to stop, make sure and keep current with your flea, tick, and worm treatments. Their proximity to wildlife makes them vulnerable to whatever the squirrel, bunny, bird, or mouse might have picked up on its journey.

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Your Cat’s Gifts Are a Sign That You’re Family

One way or another, your cat’s gruesome presents are a sweet gesture of family kinship and appreciation. You are their family, and they want to share their joy and bounty with you. 

As sweet and wonderful as that is, the more you can protect the wildlife and keep your cat occupied, playful, and happy, the better it is for everyone.

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About the Author

Joan Weisman is an experienced freelance marketing strategist and copywriter who helps small businesses expand their audience and stay top of mind with customers. She loves animals and dotes on her cat and dog.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Do cats leave dead animals as presents?

Cats that catch prey and bring it to their people are showing off their instinctive hunting skills. They bring you their prey to save for later, to help teach you to hunt, or as a present for being part of their family.

Do cats think humans are cats?

Cats may think that humans are cats like them or at least one of their kind. Most cats reserve affection for the humans who are closest to them.

Why does my cat keep bringing me dead animals?

Your cat has the ancient instincts of its hunter ancestors. Hunting is a deeply ingrained behavior, and bringing you the prize signifies affection and community.

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