Eek, a mouse!

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2007

A series of urgent, muffled mews awakened me. My little cat Annie sat on the bed talking with her mouth full. She had a gift for me - a gift with four limp feet and a dangling tail. Annie was bringing me breakfast in bed.

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Instinct prompts a cat to hunt. "To shriek and behave badly toward the cat for what is a normal part of its behavior is, to say, the least, a display of bad interspecies manners," writes Roger Tabor, one of today's leading experts on cat behavior. "It is kinder to the cat and to your relationship with it to discreetly dispose of the prey."

So I fetched the dustpan and whiskbroom, and behind the bathroom door, gave my deceased gift a discreet burial at sea.

Why does a cat bring home its prey? A mother cat does so when feeding her kittens and teaching them to hunt for themselves. Our cats bring us their catch because, Tabor says, they regard us as "fairly hopeless kittens, showing no signs of catching our own prey."

Most rodents arrive in the house in good shape. They've just been caught and the cat - again, instinctively - takes the prey straight home. In the wild, other cats and kittens in the home colony provide the hunter with backup. They also get to share the meal.

Once home, the hunter has to put down the mouse and bat it on the head several times to render it senseless. Then the cat can safely deliver one swift, killing bite to the back of the neck.

The batting, which humans commonly mistake for cruel "play," is critical. Otherwise, the prey flips onto its back and tries to land a damaging bite on the cat's face or eye. In the process, the mouse often gets away.

Cats are born to be rodent hunters. So effective is nature's hard wiring that a feral cat will, on first encounter, set down, bat and kill a chicken drumstick or pork chop.

When I was a college student in Seattle, I walked to school past Tyrell's Pet Food factory. On the front office counter was a cardboard box in which slept an old cat called Fluffy. She had shown up years ago as a starving kitten.

Entering by way of the loading dock, the kitten ignored vast quantities of cat food being canned. She jumped into a grain bin. No one could find her at quitting time, so they locked her in. Next morning, they found rats and mice stacked like cordwood outside the bin.

Now, in retirement, Fluffy dozed all day. But every morning, the office manager's first job was to dispose of the dead mouse on the counter next to Fluffy's box.

How can you catch a live mouse that escapes from the cat in your house? The cat will be fixated on the spot where the mouse has found refuge. The mouse won't move until the cat tires of waiting and goes away. Then, rather than venturing out in the open, the mouse will travel along a wall.

While the cat has the mouse cornered, lay a pair of boots on the floor, one on either side of the mouse, with the open boot tops pointing toward him. When he moves, he'll dart into a boot and stay there for a while. You pick up the boots, go outside and shake them upside down. Exit one lucky mouse.

I've had good luck getting cats to leave gifts for me on the rug or mat where I give them their morning treats. In the past, Annie always left mice on the flower in the corner of an Oriental-style rug in the hall.

So why, on this occasion, did she serve breakfast in bed? It was Mother's Day.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. E-mail:

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