Cats are not widely regarded as the most useful of animals. They have a reputation for being a bit lazy and not particularly easy to please. Granted, they can’t be trained to assist the disabled or find a cache of illegal drugs, but the one thing they can do, they do very well – catching rodents. True, cats are not very flexible when it comes to their line of work, but they’ll do their job virtually anywhere. Cats have worked on farms, on ships, in factories and mills, in public buildings and private homes. The modern cat owner probably finds this talent for mousing a bit of a nuisance, but for much of history, mice and rats posed a serious threat to food and other goods, as well as human health, so perhaps we should show greater appreciation for the valuable role cats have played when it comes to vermin control.
The ancient Egyptians certainly appreciated cats for their hunting skills, but could they have trained cats to retrieve game? A number of tomb paintings put a cat at the heart of a hunting party. Typically, the scene depicts the deceased alongside family members on a waterfowl hunt, in which a cat appears to be taking part. One particularly striking example is from the tomb of Nebamun, which was painted about 1450 BC and is now in the British Museum. Nebamun is standing on a small boat in marshland, his wife and child next to him. A cat by his side appears to be dispatching three birds at once.
These images have led some to wonder if the Egyptians actually trained their cats to retrieve game. Others have speculated that the cats may have been taken on the hunt in order to flush the birds out, or perhaps cause a distraction. But Egyptian art was often highly symbolic, so it could be a mistake to interpret these images too literally. When scenes like those found on Nebamun’s tomb were painted, cats were an integral part of domestic life, so Nebamun is shown accompanied by his whole family: wife, child and cat.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that any of them would have taken part in a real-life hunting trip and it certainly doesn’t prove that cats were trained to retrieve. What it does do, however, is highlight once again just how central cats were to Egyptian life.
The life of a sailor was often a harsh one. Months on end with nothing but ocean to look at, not much fresh food and no word from loved ones at home. On top of all that there were the many irritations caused by tiny stowaways: mice in your bed, rats gnawing at the rigging and lines of little droppings in your stale breakfast bread. No wonder cats were often press-ganged into service by seafarers. Cats are not naturally drawn to water, but they’ve been at sea since ancient times, transported around the world by explorers, traders and conquerors.
Because of their useful work, cats on ships were generally regarded as lucky and their behavior was closely observed for signs of changes in weather conditions. The contribution cats made to maritime endeavors was largely unsung for many millennia, but the 20th century saw a number of cats, turned into minor celebrities for their work during the Second World War and in the course of various Polar explorations. In conflict situations, the role of the cat was more than just rodent control. Cats became mascots, and their presence could create a sense of normality and be a great source of comfort to navy recruits, who were often very young and away from home for the first time in extremely stressful circumstances.
The Prey Sequence.
Predatory behavior is a fundamental part of being a cat, and whether they’re prowling the garden for a live target or ambushing faux prey indoors, their tactics will be similar. Understanding the prey sequence is a great way to learn about your cat’s natural instincts and helps you to create stimulating play scenarios.
- Search: cats patrol their territory alone, looking for suitable prey. They will often sit and wait patiently, their ultrasonic hearing tuning in to high-pitched noises and scurrying. Their eyes scan for clues before they focus their stare on the target’s location.
- Stalk: Cats often sneak up on their pray from the side or rear. With their eyes on the target and legs bent, they slowly and steadily creep forward, tummy to the ground. Things can change quickly, so they may run at times, while keeping their squat posture.
- Chase: As ambush predators, cats rely on stealth and the element of surprise, rather than pursuing and exhausting their prey as cheetahs do. If they run, it’s not a long-distance chase; it’s a sprint, sometimes with erratic twists and turns to stop the prey from escaping.
- Pounce: Precision is vital for this close-range tactic. It starts from a crouch, with the trademark “bottom wiggle”, before the body is propelled forwards and upwards. Focus is on the target, with head lowered, eyes fixed and ears pricked. On landing, whiskers sweep forward to gauge the prey’s exact location.
- Capture and kill: They prey is caught between paws or jaws. With poor close-range vision, cats use their front paw pads and claws to detect movement, while their lips determine the prey’s orientation and canine teeth deliver the fatal bite.
- Manipulate: Prey often fight back if they are not killed instantly, so cats bat, toss and fling small victims and bunny kick larger ones. They may briefly let their target go to test for signs of life or to avoid getting injured.
- Prepare and eat: The hunter will slink to a safe spot, prey in mouth, so they can either tuck in or stash it away from rivals and predators. If they’re hungry, front teeth pluck feathers and a barbed tongue strips skin and fur, exposing the flesh.
- Rest: This arduous process is replayed up to 20 times a day in the wild, so recharging is essential. This is the time to digest their kill and wash blood and parasites off their fur, so as not to attract predators or scare off future prey.