There are urban legends galore about the relationship between cats and rats. Some have rats being so large that cats are afraid to fight with them. Other legends have cats being the answer to ridding entire cities of their rat population. The truth is somewhere in between, and now there is scientific research to prove and disprove what many people believe about the cat versus rat battles.
Research done in New York City, where cats were free to roam and rats were tagged with microchips to trace their whereabouts – or lack thereof – showed that cats generally prefer to pick on someone smaller than their own size. Cat haters may be able to make a case that the average cat, or even feral cats, are simply bullies and cowards.
There is a true story where a cat went a-hunting at night, bringing home two baby rabbits in two consecutive days. One day passed, and on the fourth day the cat returned home with mouth empty and looking very scared. He went a-hiding for more than two days where no one could find him. The prevailing theory is that Mama or Papa Rabbit, much larger than their offspring, caught him prowling around and sent him a clear message.
In the study, the same basic idea was brought to light. Cats largely ignored the rats once they had grown to a certain size, with only two deaths reported among the 150 rats that were tagged. Cameras were placed to observe the daily activity habits of both cats and rats, and it showed that even though cats at times outnumbered the rats, the cats ignored their larger potential prey. The rat-cat interactions were observed over a period of 5 months, long enough for the cats to figure out what they were up against.
While the study was done in New York City, which has more rats than you can swing a dead cat at, there are no comparable studies from either large cities or small towns. It may be possible that Big Apple Rats are more aggressive and fierce than others. The study actually hints at this possibility, indicating that when the rats took a defensive, aggressive position the cats opted to move on. In contrast, the city of Chicago had sponsored an adopt a cat program that was reported to be quite successful, to the point where there was a 6 week waiting list to adopt a cat. It should be noted that New York City rats are quite legendary in size and persistence.
If the study is to be taken at face value, including the observation that cats and rats were seen eating out of the same trash containers at the same time, then how has New York City managed to keep its rat population under control (OK, reasonable control for New York). One possibility is that the cats get to the smaller rats before they can measure up to the cat’s own size. That would leave a lot of large rats roaming the city, a factor not included in the study.
One final question to be asked is whether your average cat pursues rats, mice, and other vermin smaller than itself for play or for food. Often cats will bring their trophy to their owner and just leave it on the floor, uneaten. Birds seem to be the preferred food for cats, as many bird lovers absolutely despise areas where stray cats are abundant as bird populations in those areas dwindle considerably once the cats appear.
During the 5 month study there were 2 confirmed kills by cats. It was concluded that these two cats were extremely hungry and desperate for something to eat. The primal reality of survival took over and no matter how fierce the rat, the cat would fearlessly prevail. This shows that the issue is not the ability of the cat to eat the larger rats, but of its interest and willingness. We all know cats are aloof creatures to most of humankind, but that now seems to be another urban legend. Cats are aloof to everything and everyone except for their own survival. It is something we should have known all along, since after all cats do what cats do – look to be fed and have a warm place to stay. As for everyone else, they’re on their own.