LIFESTYLE

What Do Cats Eat in the Wild: The Feline Art of Breadwinning

orange cat outside
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Cats are obligate carnivores. This means that their diet is primarily meat ‘by necessity.’ Flesh and tissue contain a vital amino acid called taurine, an organic compound responsible for good eyesight and preventing heart diseases. For domestic cats, this comes from raw meat, processed food, and the occasional mouse-catch. But what do cats eat in the wild?

The dietary needs of wild cats are similar to their at-home counterparts. They need taurine which can be obtained from their wide range of prey, from rodents to birds. While cats may not look like lethal killers, they are natural hunters, and in the wild, they are certainly quite high up in the food chain.

Their family is estimated to hunt and kill 1.4 – 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 – 20.7 billion mammals annually. This basically points to a meat-based diet, although they do occasionally eat fruit or vegetables.

To understand wild cats’ diet, let’s take a look at what influences their diet, how they hunt, what they hunt, and much more. This information will help you better understand what your own furry friend should eat to stay healthy.

Factors That Influence What Cats Eat in the Wild

cat on tree

Unlike in homes where pets are guaranteed meals, the situation is completely different in the wild. To eat, a cat has to overcome many challenges, both from her own kind and from other animals.

To get a clearer view of these challenges, here are some determinants of the food availability for fur babies in the wild.

#1: Social Structure

Much like lionesses, female cats are the main hunters when it comes to providing for their litter. They are the ones that hunt and teach the little ones how to feed on the prey. This gives them control on what kittens get to eat, including variety and frequency.

At birth and a few weeks after, kittens feed on their mother’s milk. During this time, they will spend most of their days among the queens; a clear example of how social structure can influence diet.

#2: Location Around the World

Prey differs in each part of the world. An African cat will have different native food compared to a European cat. This is because different wildlife exists in different places. Similarly, a cat living in the desert will have a hunting method different from a cat that survives by fishing near a lake or river.

#3: A Cat’s Sex

cat and kitten in the wild

A wild cat with kittens will need more nutritious food more often than a lone male cat. That’s why, usually, female cats are better at hunting than males.

By being better hunters, female cats enjoy a wide variety of prey. This is required in order to have all the required nutrients to pass on to the kittens during pregnancy.

#4: The Season

The prey available for hunting is mostly affected by the season of the year. In seasons where some animals need to hibernate, cats suffer due to scarcity. Dry seasons also bring about the migration of birds, while fish move to areas with more water.

#5: The Size of the Prey

Generally, cats prey on animals that are smaller than them. Only on rare occasions will felines prey on animals equal in size or slightly larger. According to studies, their hunting success gradually lowers with an increase in prey size.

What Do Cats Eat in The Wild?

Now that you know what goes behind determining what cats eat in the wild, it’s now possible to narrow down the food that they survive on. Of the many animals in the wild, here are the major prey available to cats.

#1: Small Animals and Rodents

cat catching a mouse

Rabbits and mice are very popular with wild cats. In fact, they make up the largest single food source for them. Since cats are faster than rabbits and bigger than mice, they have a higher chance of catching them compared to other prey.

Most people keep cats as a measure to control and eliminate these small animals in their homes. It is very rare for these rodents to cause food poisoning to cats as they eat natural plants in the wild.

There’s also a type of rodent known as Pika. These are small mammals that resemble rabbits but have no external tails. They have rounded ears and a rounded body. They are mainly located in Northern American forests and Asia. By being similar to rabbits, wild cats certainly enjoy them.

For wild cats in Europe, these small rodents also act as their main source of protein.

#2: Small Birds and Flying Mammals

Wild cats love catching small birds like robins. They are easy prey to carry and offer soft bones full of calcium. Also, cats fancy birds that like to operate close to the ground. Reason being, catching them on trees and in the air is very hard.

Yes, wild cats love eating flying mammals such as bats. No wonder most will live close to caves where bats exist in large numbers. If the bats venture out during the day, wild cats will be there waiting for a tasty meal.

#3: Small Reptiles

cat catching a reptile

There are felines that eat lizards and experience no negative health effects. Wild cats love catching small North American lizards due to their slowness in a chase. Lizards can, however, lead to food poisoning if they have ingested harmful insects.

That said, wild cats are instinctive and will mostly feed on the lizard’s head, avoiding the stomach area.

Feral cats have an average of 1 million reptile kills on a daily basis in Australia. That number includes snakes. Garter, corn, king, gopher, and rat snakes usually end up in a wild cat’s stomach.

The desert cat mainly survives on eating snakes. Hunting snakes is usually easy since they are naturally afraid of cats.

#4: Insects

Grasshoppers are not harmful to cats. In the grasshopper’s high season, wild cats are assured of abundant food. Cockroaches are also very important to wild cats as they are rich in protein. Furthermore, they aren’t poisonous.

Most wild cats eat spiders. Typically, the spiders won’t cause them any harm; of all spider species, only a few of them have fangs strong enough to get through a wild cat’s skin.

#5: Plants

cat eating grass

Did you know that cats also feed on plants? The main reason behind this peculiar dietary need is to clear hairballs and other detritus from the digestive tract. Other reasons could be starvation or secondary nutritional benefits. So, which plants do wild cats eat?

  • Grass. Cats, like many carnivores, consume some types of grass. As a matter of fact, some really love it. Oat grass is typically marketed as “cat grass.” In the wild, cats eat all manner of prey. When they get stomach upsets, they feed on grass to remove the unwanted materials from their body.
  • Bean Sprouts. As much as cats love meat, they need a little plant roughage in their diet. This can be sourced from bean sprouts growing in the wild.
  • Edible Flowers. Most flowers can be dangerous to felines, but they naturally know how to select them. Each cat is, however, very different from another, and some wild felines will avoid flowers completely.
  • Catnip. Yes, cats in the wild love eating catnip. The plant is a known feline sedative that also comes with euphoric effects. Cats prefer the plant in various forms including dried or fresh. Living in a forest with big animals must certainly be stressful, hence the need for a little feel-good source.

See Also: How to Grow Cat Grass

Parts of a Prey Eaten by Wild Cats

Now, although cats may catch their prey whole, they don’t usually eat them whole. Here are the parts of prey that wild cats usually eat.

  • Skin: This is the first part of an animal that cats start eating. Wild cats enjoy the skin of mice and rodents as it is very soft.
  • Muscle and Meat: This is the main course and can be very good for a cat with kittens. It is a source of amino acids and taurine. Also, it is rich in protein necessary for a healthy diet.
  • Feathers: Yes, wild cats eat parts of a bird’s feathers. Birds are too small for many cats to get full on; hence almost every part is utilized.
  • Organs: Internal organs that don’t have a foul smell will certainly be eaten by wild cats. This includes the heart, the liver, and the lungs.
  • Bones: Of all the parts of a prey’s body, cats are only completely averse to feeding on teeth and nails. The rest are part of their diet, including bones. Bones are a great source of calcium needed for the development of strong teeth and bone structure. Cats chew and feed on small soft bones. These can be from the wings of small birds such as quails or a small animal’s ribs and necks.

How Cats Hunt in the Wild

cat hunting in the wild

The hunting ability of wild cats involves skills and techniques that are learned, earned, and perfected through practice and experience. Not all cats hunt. Young kittens will not hunt until they reach a certain age. Some members will also sit out during hunts. This is seen in the males of some feline families such as lions.

Kittens learn to hunt by observing their mother and siblings. Prey in the wild differs is size and speed. Therefore, the chances of a cat making a successful kill will be influenced by several factors:

  • Age. Older cats have more experience when it comes to hunting. Through major failures in their lifetime, they master how to be patient, choose prey, stalk, and kill it. A female’s success rate is usually better than that of males. Kittens, on the other hand, are less serious and will mostly approach a hunt as a chance to play.
  • Size. Larger and stronger cats have a better prey killing rate. This is because they can hold their prey strongly with their claws and teeth. They can hunt down big sized rodents such as rabbits and hares. Smaller cats have a better chance of going for smaller prey like mice.

Mostly, wilds cats aren’t triggered to hunt by hunger; rather it is the sound and sight of prey that act as stimuli. Similar to purring, hunting is a hardwired trait, which involves several strategies:

#1: Choosing the Prey

Felines have a unique way of choosing what they ingest. Ever wondered why a cat will not look at cornmeal twice, but will be alert the moment you open canned beef? All this has to do with what they find appealing or not.

When it comes to choosing what to feed on, cats mostly depend on two of their senses. Due to their lower number of taste buds, their choice of food is rarely influenced by taste. The primary factors that influence a cat’s food choice are:

  • The sense of smell is how cats mainly interact with food. Any food that smells unappealing is rejected.
  • Their eyesight is another way cats choose their food. If they see live prey like mice, their innate predatory abilities get triggered, leading to a hunt.
  • The food texture. The feel of the food in a cat’s mouth will affect whether she continues eating it or not. Each cat has a different preference. Some breeds can have problems when grasping their food because of their short muzzles.
  • The Macronutrient Profile (MNP) of a feline can greatly influence a cat’s food choice in the wild. Wild cats love food high in protein. If the food has a lot of fat and carbohydrates, they will shy away from it. A wild cat’s daily energy intake comprises of 52% protein, 46% fat, and 2% carbohydrate. What does this data mean? Cats get half of their calories from proteins and the other half from fat. This sheds light on the deficiency brought about by carbohydrate-based meals that are sometimes fed to domestic cats.

See Also: How to Make Homemade Cat Food

#2: Hunting in a Forest Area

kitten in the forest

How a cat hunts differs depending on the setting. In the forest, cats prefer the stalk and pounce strategy.

First, the prey is located, and the cat moves closer and maintains a low to ground position. The cat stops and freezes while watching the prey, all the while calculating the next move.

She targets the prey; if the prey repositions, she also adjusts by moving a paw at a time, slowly and quietly.

For the final dash, she inclines her rear legs beneath her. She thrusts herself forward as she pounces on the prey. To kill the prey, she bites the neck where the skull joins the spine. Using her canine teeth, she severs the vertebral artery, killing the prey.

After killing the prey, she may move away a little and rest to return to her normal emotional equilibrium. She then carries the prey to a good shelter. After securing a place, she may start grooming herself if she got dirty before she finally starts eating.

#3: Hunting in a Desert Area

cat in desert area

In the desert, how a cat hunts changes a bit. She hides by flattening herself on the sand; her fur color camouflages very well with the sand. She then slinks along the sand. Finally, she runs and pounces on the prey, killing it.

#4: Catching Fish

Unlike catching prey on dry land, more patience is required when fishing. Typically, the cat waits on the bank for a fish to appear. She then uses her paw to scoop and remove the fish from the water.

If the water is shallow, she may get in and use both of her paws to pounce and grab the fish. It’s very hard for most cats to perfect this fishing technique. This is because of a difficulty in perception of depth due to the water.

What Do Cats Drink in the Wild?

cat drinking water outside

Water is life and cats cannot survive without water. It is needed for survival and for complementing dry food. Water greatly helps in digestion which can cause major health scares for cats like stomach upsets. Lack of enough water can also cause fatal diseases such as bladder infections.

So, what are the water sources in the wild?

#1: Milk

The summer and spring seasons are the high kitten seasons. During a litter of kittens’ first weeks in the wild, mama’s milk is what they feed on for good health and survival. Milk is very important at this stage before they fully develop and hone their hunting skills

#2: Puddle Water

When in their natural habitat, wild cats don’t have easy access to clean water like domesticated ones do. They are resistant to drink from flowing water in rivers. Also, most water spots are dominated by rival predators. This sometimes forces the cats to drink puddle water.

#3: Blood

When cats hunt their prey, they will take the blood as part of their diet. This is mostly done by young kittens while their teeth aren’t strong enough to tear meat.

The only felid found primarily in the true desert is the sand cat. It is mainly found in the deserts of Northern Africa, Southwest, and central Asia. It drinks water when available, but its main source of hydration is blood. Blood is very important as these cats live in an environment where the temperature is between 11 and 28°C.

Wrap Up

cat in the grass

Knowing how well you take care of your cat, it is sad to imagine what cats in the wild have to go through just to have a meal. Don’t pity them, though; these cats have mastered the art of fending for themselves and their families without the help of a companion.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that they can tell what their body needs and go for it as well as keep off what they don’t.

Having learned a thing or two about what cats in the wild eat should also shed some light on what your furry bundle needs in terms of food. You are probably not expected to go out hunting in the wild with her, but you can at least try and match up her nutrition to what she would eat in the wild. You can also provide some toy ‘prey’ and watch her wild nature come to life.

What part of this article can your cat relate to most? We would like to hear all about it. Feel free to leave this and other feedback in the comments section below. Next, check out our related article on how long have cats been domesticated.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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