Why cats bring presents

by Andy Bryenton

After being domesticated for more than 10,000 years, the common cat still retains all of the instincts of a predator. Which is why a sometimes unwelcome scenario unfolds in kitchens and bedrooms across the world every morning; the house cat has once again brought home something furry, feathered and dead.

Of course, sometimes it isn’t. It has led to the first theory as to why cats like to bring things back to their owners; that they are teaching us how to hunt.

Wild cats do indeed bring back small prey animals for their kittens to practise with, such as field mice. It’s a chance for a mother cat to share some hunting knowledge, and for her family to learn how to hunt for their own mice and other prey. However, it’s notable that on many occasions, it’s a male cat who brings back the most ‘presents’, or that the offering is always 100 per cent deceased, with no educational value. That leads to theory two — reciprocation.

Cats are smart enough to know that we provide for them, and they are keen to contribute. That could be why some cats bring home dead rodents, and why others snaffle socks, shoes, clothes and even stranger items. One Baltimore, USA cat, was known to cat-burgle remote controls from neighbouring houses. Animal psychologists think that these generous kitties are trying to give something back in exchange for all those canned dinners, proving their value to the group.

That has led to a third theory, which credits cats with even more intellect, and explains why sometimes the little gifts they bring are half-eaten. Cats have 300 million neurons (connections in the brain) compared to 160 million for dogs, so it’s entirely possible that they know we dislike or even fear rodents. By fulfilling the role of mouse and rat warden, they are aware that they are doing something we can’t do (without traps or poisons), and they want to show they are doing a good job. Some even posit that this is a learned behaviour. As, in ancient times, a human would be more likely to forge a bond with a cat that was demonstrably keeping down the population of rats and mice around the farm. Unfortunately, the same may be true for birds, which used to be seed-pecking pests to old-world farmers, but which are prized native fauna here in New Zealand.