Why Your Cat Brings You “Gifts”

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Your little tigress has landed yet another mangled mouse at your feet, having dragged it up from the basement. A week earlier, she even left one under your pillow. Is she bringing you a present? Hoarding her bounty for a nice snack later on?

The activity may not have a purpose other than for the cat to express her instinct to hunt. “Cats can act on their predatory drive even when they’re not hungry,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “They’re sometimes in it just for the chase,” she says — although they may feel compelled to bring home their kill. That, too, is instinctual. Keep in mind, Dr. Borns-Weil advises, that our pampered house cats are not that different genetically from their big-cat ancestors. They still are hard-wired to seek out and capture prey. But why drop it at your feet, or under your pillow, or in some other spot that’s yours and yours alone?

Some have thought that perhaps the cat wants to demonstrate how proud she is of her conquest. But it’s probably not that. Since the activity is more common among females, behaviorists posit that the cat is displaying a misplaced instinct to teach her kittens how to eat prey. “I’ve cooked this up. It’s good for you, so eat it.”

Other cat owners have wondered whether their cat is trying to say thank you for all the nurturing she has received, to pay back their caregivers with a gift. That, too, is unlikely. Although your cat is bonded to you, she is not going to process the care you give her as something to be grateful for.

That said, hiding her catch in your own personal space is very much an act of trust, especially given that cats are territorial animals. So while her deliveries are “not quite the same as a gift, trust itself is a gift,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I once read that a cat doing this gifting is both a sign of affection or as a way to let you know that you’re accepted in her world. I once had a feral cat (she wouldn’t come inside except when the weather was bad — and then only briefly) who would periodically leave me gifts. It was usually a dead, decapitated mouse laid neatly on my front doorstep! She’d purr when I came out to pick it up.

    As for appreciation, I have witnessed it in cats and dogs who have been rescued. They don’t express it the way humans do, though.

  2. I’ve always thought that my cats have been “providing” for me given my pathetic hunting abilities. They do usually look rather proud of themselves when they provide proof of their skills, sort of smug actually!

  3. We have 3 litter mates who have a ritual when one of them has brought home a gift. They will stop in the grass next to the patio, place the gift on the grass before them and wait until the other two come and seem to admire the “gift”. Only then do they place it in front of the patio door. So funny, but so cute too.

  4. I certainly do not know what is going through a cat’s head when she brings her human a gift of prey. I doubt that I ever will. But I would point out that at the time of their quasi-domestication thousands of years ago, cats that demonstrated to humans their value as pest control agents by depositing dead rodents at their feet were probably far more likely to be accepted into human communities and to thrive there. So regardless of the initial motivation, this behavior would likely be selected for over time among the ancestors of today’s house cats.

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