Playing With Your Cat: 10 Things You Need To Know

Jan 29, 2015 · Updated Oct 5, 2016 · ·
  1. Anne
    Cats benefit hugely from interactive playtime, where the owner moves a cat toy around for them. It helps beat boredom, reduces stress, provides physical and mental exercise for Kitty, while at the same time cementing the special bond between human and feline.

    What is interactive playtime?

    When you toss a simple stuffed toy for a cat to bat on its own, you're giving him "dead prey" to pounce on. No matter how expensive the toy, Kitty is likely to lose interest within a few minutes. After all, there's not much you can do with an inedible "dead" mouse other than make sure it's really dead.

    However, when you use a fishing-rod type toy to play with your cat, you breathe life into the toy by moving it around. You are in fact creating a good simulation of actual hunting, where the prey moves, hides and darts around. Much more interesting for your cat! To make the most of this precious interaction, here are a few things you need to keep in mind -

    1. Create the right setting.

    Interactive playtime is basically a form of role-playing. Your cat's role is that of The Hunter. Your role - via the toy - is that of The Prey. Don't play on an empty stage though. Make sure there are props around - furniture, pillows, boxes and bags all make good make-believe rocks, tree stumps and grass for prey and predator to hide behind.

    2. Imitate the prey's behavior.

    Play your role properly. Decide if the toy at the end of the string is a mouse, a bird or perhaps a small lizard or fish. Get into the role and make the toy move accordingly. If it's a mouse you're playing, it should run by walls and objects, hide occasionally, freeze if it sees the cat, then run away from it (never in the direction of the cat). If you're playing a bird, have the toy "flutter" around, flying into the air occasionally. Don't forget to be the kind of bird that walks on the ground a lot, perhaps pecking for food. After all, no cat will chase a bird as it flies high up in the sky.

    3. Don't frustrate your cat.

    You want the game to be fun and satisfying. Don't just wave the toy high up where Kitty can never reach it. Allow the "bird" to land often and don't let the mouse always "outrun" the cat. Every now and again, especially if he's tried very hard, allow your cat to catch the toy and hold it in his mouth and paws for a little while.

    4. Don't exhaust your cat.

    Exercise is definitely one of your goals but it doesn't mean Kitty needs to get to the point where she's panting or heaving. It rarely happens during real hunting sessions either, where most of the time is spent stalking prey and planning the attack. Remember, exercise means a mental exercise, not just physical activity.

    5. Warm up - play - cool down.

    Just like with your own Pilates or running workouts, keep playing time reasonable and safe. Begin with slow movements, gradually work your way up to the wild chases and eventually wrap the session up with slower playing motions again. It's healthier for your cat's body.

    6. Set up a daily schedule.

    Cats are creatures of habit. If they know that playtime is always in the evening, or morning, they'll be more likely to be awake and active for it. Two play sessions a day is great. If you can only manage one, it's best to carry it out during the evening, to make sure Kitty is tired and relaxed during night-time. In fact, interactive playtime in the evening is a tool of behavioral therapy. Read more about it in our article about Cats and Night Crazies.

    7. More than one cat? Play separately.

    Cats are not lionesses and don't hunt in groups. If you try to operate your "mouse" when there's more than one cat in the room, you will probably only get one cat actively involved (usually the younger cat or the more dominant one), with the other cats playing the role of spectators. It's not good for them, as they can become excited by the visual stimuli, yet with no place to release the pent-up tension, they end up being more stressed than before.

    If you have more than one cat, you should have a separate play session for each cat, and carry that out in a separate room where you two will be alone.

    8. Feed after playing.

    A good hunt should end with a meal. Don't add calories to Kitty's daily diet but do keep a few spoonfuls worth of his regular diet to be served out after playtime. This is also a good time for dishing out treats to the successful hunter. It increases your cat's satisfaction and once the meal is consumed, he or she is likely to find a nice spot and get some sleep.

    9. Keep your fingers out of the way.

    One of the advantages of using a fishing-rod type of toy is that your fingers and hands are safe from claws and teeth. If you choose to mimic a prey's movements using a small toy on a string, make sure the string is long enough so Kitty doesn't end up preying on your fingers!

    10. Play throughout the cat's life.

    It's easy to get a kitten to play but older cats may be more sedentary. This doesn't mean they shouldn't enjoy interactive playtime sessions. Quite the contrary! These are cats that could benefit most from the physical and mental stimulation the game offers. Find a toy that gets your cat interested, apply the principles above and stick to a schedule. If Kitty appears reluctant to play for long, don't push it. Start with a minute of playtime and work your way gradually up to 10-15 minute sessions.

    Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

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  1. ileen
    I enjoyed this article too. Does anyone know if there is a retractable wand toy with a mouse on the end? I've seen them with feathers, but Luciano shreds feathers too quickly and the mouse is much more sturdy.
    1. Catisfication
      Kats 'n us Rabbit Fur Gray & White Mouse Teaser Wand Cat Toy
      I have never used it so hope you like it
    2. ileen
      Thanks but that one doesn't look retractable. I'm looking for a wand with retractable wire & mouse on the end.
  2. annah8
    Thanks for the good article.  I engage in all of these except the feeding after play.  I suppose with some things there's no fast and hard rules.  I actually play after feeding.  Since my cats eat on the early side, there's plenty of time for them to clean themselves, go potty, play, rest, petting and then turn in for the night.  I guess I thought, like me, going to bed just after eating is not good - but, what's good for me is not necessarily good for my pets.  I'll try feeding after play, but I'll have to hide the plate.  When they see  that shiny bowl coming, there's no fooling them.
  3. tarasgirl06
    Just reading your reply and liking it very much, Anne.  I had the former concern when I saw Jackson telling some people to do this, too.  No matter the age of the cat, I personally would disagree with him on this point.  We've all heard of teenage athletes collapsing very unexpectedly with no prior symptoms.  Running/playing with anyone "to exhaustion and panting" seems over the top to me.  
  4. Anne
    We tend to use the "err on the side of caution" approach here. A young healthy cat would be ok if brought to the point of panting/exhaustion. An older cat or a cat with a health problem (possibly undiagnosed) not so much. Same goes with playing with cats while their together. It works well for some cats but is highly unadvised in some situations. Instead of delving into the dynamics of each situation, we give the safest advice for all cats. 
      Catisfication purraised this.
  5. tarasgirl06
    Very good article, but Jackson Galaxy has a different point of view on #4 and #7.  Are you aware of this, and what do you think about it?
  6. jkuras
    Hi, My cat Sushi is so interesting.  He created games with me - one of his favorite is hide and seek.  He initiates it.  Then I call out where is Sushi and he runs around and hides.  When I find him I say Gottcha.  He puffs up his tail and runs and hides again.  I laugh so much, it brings me so much joy.  He initiates and stops the play.  Just walks off and cries for me to follow him to his bowl of food.  He likes me to sit and watch him eat and pet him - we are very bonded to each other  - I have him now 8-1/2 months.  He is a rescue and he actually rescued me.  Helps me laugh when I feel like crying and never leaves my side unless he is sunning himself on one of my windows.
    Joyce Kuras
  7. grooverite
    This article just made me realize perhaps why my Toby meows a lot during the day when I'm home. Hes BORED!!......or sick but I doubt that.
  8. caitini
    Fuzzy pretty much never plays with me. He's just not interested. I've tried all the toys. He'll bat them around on his own, though.
  9. marian100
    Sparticus was never interested in fishing rod style toys as a kitten (or as an adult). By far the best toy is a small mouse shaped thing with a tinkle in it. As a kitten he would chase it, bat it, attempt to retrieve it from various under locations and best of all play fetch with it. Still his most prized toy, they cost a dollar each.... spent toilet rolls provide brilliant entertainment also. As do balls, particularly if they tinkle.... He is 8 now and still bounces around all kittenish, he will sometimes play himself, with his toys until exhausted which is great unless he decides that 3am is time for a big play.
  10. sheila eaton
    I liked this article because my cat loves to play but I must admit I have been using a soft mouse toy and a fluffy ball which she will chase if you throw it.   My hands have suffered though and, therefore, I was grateful for the idea of a toy on a stick and will certainly invest in one. My cat is a little overweight because since she adopted me she does not go out much (her choice).  I think this article has given me insight as to why it is important to play with my cat and good advice on the best ways and times to achieve this.  Thank you.
  11. coneja
    Great article: will probably save it for tips! Good point about playing in a multi-cat household, and I also really liked how the author emphasized "role-playing"... I will definitely be putting down some props to keep it interesting for my cats!
  12. catladylou
    Love this article, some nice tips in there. I myself had noticed that when playing with one cat the other cats always want it so i play alone with one why hubby has the other then we play with the baby last lol
  13. mservant
    Nice all round article.  Good reminder that the mental activity when kitty is laying not moving very much is still important and not to give up the game.  I also like the bit about warm up and cool down to look after muscles and joints.  
  14. raysmyheart
    I liked this article.  My cat is alone during the day and I do play with her in the evenings.  A lot of times I am tired but I have committed myself to taking the time to play with her.  She is very hungry to play because she is always bringing toys to me, so I am lucky that she reminds me!  I must admit that I have not always thought of play as so important, but now I see it as a health issue.  I think this is because I've seen more articles out there about the benefits of play.  I want my cat to stay playful and interested in things.  Articles like this keep me motivated!