Do Cats Really Hunt Mice and Rats? The Truth About Feline Predatory Behavior


There is a common belief that cats and mice are mortal enemies. The idea that cats will hunt and kill mice and rats is so ingrained in our culture that we use phrases like “the cat is playing with the mouse” to describe a situation where someone has power over another. But do cats actually hunt and kill rodents, or is this just a myth?

History of Cats as Mousers

Cats have been used for pest control throughout history. As early as ancient Egypt, cats were valued for their ability to hunt and kill rodents that damaged crops and spread disease [1]. Cats were brought aboard ships sailing long voyages to control rat populations that could spoil food supplies and damage infrastructure [2]. By the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became common on farms for managing mice and rats. Their hunting skills made cats a vital ally for protecting precious food stores.

Why Cats Hunt

Cats are natural hunters with an instinctive drive to stalk and kill prey, even when they are not hungry. According to the Earth article “Domestic cats go hunting out of instinct rather than hunger” this hunting behavior is innate and not connected to a cat’s hunger level. Purina also notes cats “have evolved to try and hunt whenever they can, regardless of whether or not they are hungry.” Even well-fed domestic cats will engage in this hunting activity. As the iCatCare article “Understanding the hunting behaviour of pet cats” explains, “The motivation to hunt prey…is only partly related to hunger.” The drive stems more from instinct than a need for sustenance.

How Cats Hunt

Cats are highly effective predators that rely on stealth, patience and precise pouncing techniques when hunting rodents like mice and rats.

Cats move slowly and methodically when stalking prey, placing each paw carefully to avoid making noise. Their padded paws allow cats to sneak up on unsuspecting rodents quietly and help minimize noise while walking or running. Cats have excellent hearing and rely on their ears to detect and pinpoint prey. They also have a powerful sense of smell and can detect rodents even when they cannot see them.

Cats demonstrate immense patience when hunting, often waiting motionless in one spot for long periods of time until prey is in prime position. According to Purina, “Once your cat’s in striking distance they’ll gather their rear legs beneath them then leap and seize their prey with their front claws.” Their powerful hind legs allow cats to pounce high and far to catch speedy rodents.

This combination of stealthy stalking, patience, and explosive pouncing makes cats effective hunters able to capture elusive and fast moving rodents.

Success Rates

Cats can be very effective hunters, but their success rates vary quite a bit. According to one study published in the Smithsonian Magazine, cats were only able to kill about one rat for every 100 they chased in an urban environment. The study found that rats have many hiding spots and learned to avoid areas smelling of cats. However, cats may have higher success rates hunting mice. According to Automatic Trap, cats can catch mice 70-80% of the time when actively hunting them.


Cats are known for hunting and killing mice and rats, but they actually prefer smaller prey that is easier to catch and kill. According to research by Michael Parsons of Fordham University, “Cats are not the natural enemy of rats. They prefer smaller prey.” [1]

Specifically, cats tend to prefer hunting rodents like mice, voles, and chipmunks over rats. Mice and voles are smaller and easier for cats to swiftly pounce on and kill. Rats, being larger and stronger, can often put up more of a fight. So while cats will eat rats if they catch them, they gravitate toward smaller rodent prey. According to one study, the preferred prey size for domestic cats is between 15-30 grams, which encompasses mice but not rats. [2]

Additionally, rats tend to be more cautious and have better senses to detect predators like cats. Mice are easier targets as they are not as wary. So when given the choice, cats often opt to hunt mice and voles over rats.

Risks to Cats

Cats can face some dangers from hunting and killing rodents. One of the biggest risks is contracting diseases or parasites from infected mice or rats.

Rodents can carry a number of diseases that they can transmit to cats through bites or scratches. Some examples include Put A “Paws” On Hunting: Keep Your Cat Safe From Rodent …:

  • Leptospirosis – bacterial infection that can damage the kidneys and liver
  • Rat bite fever – bacterial illness that causes fever, vomiting, and joint pain
  • Plague – bacterial disease that can be fatal if untreated
  • Rabies – viral disease that attacks the central nervous system

Rodents can also transmit internal parasites like tapeworms and external parasites like fleas and ticks to cats. These parasites can cause illness and skin irritation in cats. It’s important to use flea/tick prevention medication and deworm cats regularly if they hunt rodents.

While the hunting instinct is strong in cats, owners should be aware of these potential rodent-related health hazards. Keeping cats indoors and using humane rodent traps and deterrents can help reduce a cat’s exposure risk.

Benefits to Humans

One of the most common benefits cats provide to humans is pest control. Cats are excellent hunters and will readily catch and kill rodents around homes and farms. According to a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the presence of cats is linked to lower rat activity and higher giving up densities (a sign of perceived predation risk) [1]. Many owners find that having cats helps keep their homes and properties free of rats and mice.

However, some research suggests cats may not be as effective at controlling rat populations as previously thought. One study in Biological Conservation found that feral cats failed to reduce rat populations in an urban area, likely because rats could take refuge in areas cats could not access [2]. So while cats may not eradicate entire rat colonies, their hunting skills can help reduce rodent nuisances around homes.

Downsides for Ecosystems

Cats can have significant negative impacts on native species, especially birds, when they are allowed to roam outdoors. Domestic cats are not native to most ecosystems, and are considered an invasive predator species. According to a 2013 study published in Nature Communications, free-ranging domestic cats in the United States alone kill 1.3–4 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually [1]. Cats tend to be opportunistic hunters, so even well-fed pet cats will still hunt and kill small animals. Another study in Biological Conservation found that cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 2 reptile, 21 mammal, and 33 bird species [2].

Outdoor and feral cats can have a disproportionate impact on native species that did not evolve to deal with cat predation. This is especially problematic on islands, where native populations may be small and vulnerable. Cats that roam free can spread diseases to local wildlife as well. Overall, free-ranging cats present a significant threat to native ecosystems by preying on native species, competing with native predators, spreading disease, and interbreeding with wild felines.


In summary, cats have historically been used by humans to control mice and rat populations as part of their natural predatory instincts. However, hunting success rates can vary widely based on the cat’s age, experience level, environment, and prey availability. Kittens and indoor cats may rarely catch anything, while outdoor rural cats are often quite adept hunters. Though having an active mouser can benefit homeowners and farmers, there can be downsides like ecosystem disruption and health risks if cats injure prey that fight back.

The main takeaway is that cats do regularly kill and eat mice, rats, and other small animals as part of their natural hunting behaviors, though with varying levels of skill and success. Their value in controlling rodent pests is well-established, but should be weighed against potential impacts on wildlife populations and the cats’ own safety. Proper prevention of parasites and diseases is important for any outdoor hunting cat.

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