Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
I recently moved into a rental house in a wooded area, and it came with a cat. The owner of the home is a friend who moved to a small apartment, and we agreed that it would be best if I took care of their pet rather than changing its entire lifestyle. She is an indoor-outdoor cat and uses small cat doors to get outside.
I’ve lived here for five weeks, and she won’t stop bringing me dead animals. First, a dead frog appeared on my living room floor. Gross, but OK. Coming home to find a squirrel on my couch with her standing triumphantly over the kill? Much more of a problem. Last night she calmly appeared with a small dead rabbit in her mouth and dropped it at my feet.
I hate this so much.
Friends keep telling me this is her way of feeding her litter and showing her affection. While it’s nice to hear her motivations are friendly, I’m over it. I always thought owning a cat would be like having a roommate who didn’t really like you, but apparently it’s more like living with a serial killer.
I’ve added a bell to her collar in the hopes this will ruin her hunting. Any other advice to stop the murder cat from increasing her kill count?
—Living With a Murderer
Dear Living With a Murderer,
Cats are rather intimidating, even when they’re trying not to be. They move in silence (like assassins), do the majority of their bidding at night (like vampire assassins), and poop in boxes. OK, that last one isn’t too intimidating, but leaving dead animals inside is literally a mob boss tactic. It’s time to make a deal with Don Kitty.
I don’t have a cat, nor do I know any assassins, so I reached out to certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado to learn more about this rather common feline behavior. “Hunting is completely natural for cats. It’s something they will do even if they’re not hungry,” she tells me. “That is how they survived for millennia until they ended up on our couches with bowls of food available to them at all times.”
There are a few theories as to why they do this, including your friends’ view that your cat is bringing back food to feed her litter (i.e., you). “There’s also a theory that cats want to eat in a separate place from where they kill their prey,” Delgado says. “It could be that they’re just bringing it back to eat later, and this instinct to carry it away from where they killed it is very strong.”
Either way, the cat’s instinct plays a huge part in this scenario, which means it’s not something that can be totally trained away. “You can’t ask a cat not to kill small animals,” Delgado says. “That’s what they do.” Nonetheless, there are certain steps you can take that might help. One is to make sure you are providing enough food for the cat. “That may not stop them from hunting, but it could slow them down a little bit.”
I’m curious to learn how the bell works, because Delgado has heard stories of cats learning to silence them or otherwise move without jingling. Cats are extremely smart as killers (again: intimidating!). “I wouldn’t expect a miracle,” she says, “But it’s worth trying. It’s cheap, and it isn’t harmful.”
Another option is a funny-looking cat bib that supposedly hinders hunting success. The manufacturer doesn’t recommend keeping it on all the time, so you’d be on the hook for multiple costume changes a day. I don’t want to make assumptions about your daily routine, but frequently dressing a cat in what appears to be a clown’s necktie might represent a lifestyle change that’s too drastic to consider.
According to Delgado, the only surefire way to prevent your cat from bringing in dead prey is to transition it to live indoors all the time. It’s certainly possible (a previous Beast Mode covered this), but it would be antithetical to the very reason the cat stayed behind in your house in the first place. If your friend wanted her to live inside, then they would have taken her to their new apartment. So I’d run it by them if you’re considering bringing her indoors for good.
Having said that, there is a strategy that seems like a compromise. Delgado says you can keep the cat inside during the particular times of day when she tends to be more successful at hunting. “For example, if she brings home prey at 6 in the morning, maybe she shouldn’t go out until 7.” Don Kitty may find this offer too good to refuse.