Playing With Your Cat: 10 Things You Need To Know

Playing-With-Your-Cat-10-Things-You-Need-To-Know

As a cat owner, you probably know that you need to play with your cat. But are you doing it right? Is your cat getting all the benefits that playtime should give them?

After all, the feline behavior of playing has many benefits. Here’s what your cat can get from playtime –

  • Better health thanks to physical exercise
  • Improved mental capabilities
  • Reduced Boredom
  • Overall reduced stress

As a bonus, a healthy, relaxed cat that gets enough stimulation during the day is also more likely not to wake you up at night. If that’s an issue for you, don’t forget to check out our article: How To Stop My Cat From Waking Me Up At Night.

So, how can you make sure Kitty is getting the most of playtime sessions? The key here is to make things more interactive by involving you – the owner. We have ten excellent tips that will help you make playing with your cat a success.

Originally published in 2015, this is an updated version of the article.

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 making 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 runs, hides and darts about. 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 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 correctly. 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. Now and again, allow your cat to catch the toy and hold it in his mouth and paws.

4. Don’t exhaust your cat.

Exercise is 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.

Young-woman-playing-on-the-bed-with-her-cat

Just like with your 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 excellent. 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 how to stop your cat from waking you up at night.

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 different 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 food to be served out after playtime. A play session 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, they are likely to find a nice spot and get some sleep.

9. Keep your fingers out of the way.

Woman-holds-pet-toy,-plays-with-young-gray-cat

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.

Cats benefit hugely from interactive playtime – when done right! 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.

How And Why Do Cats Play?

Woman-with-cute-kitten-at-home,-closeup

Most cats love playtime! On their own, with other cats or with owners, younger cats, in particular, seem to be thoroughly entertained, as they relentlessly chase, bat and pounce at their toys. If you’re wondering why cats play and what’s the meaning behind their “games,” read on to discover the reality behind feline playtime. Understanding the behavior will help you become a better playmate for Kitty.

What Does Play Behavior in Cats Mean?

A-big-white-cat-jumping-for-the-toy-that-a-smiling-boy-is-holding-over-her

Play is a natural need in all mammals, especially those that have not reached maturity. Through play, mammals discover the world surrounding them and learn the basic rules that will govern the rest of their lives.

Kittens spend many hours playing games, especially those that simulate hunting and violent competition with other cats. The ability to play develops gradually once the kittens open their eyes. It becomes increasingly refined as their bodies grow, their muscles develop, and their motor abilities improve. Kittens are willing to play with other kittens and cats, with other animals, and with humans. You can induce them to play hunting games quite easily.

Watching a playing cat is fascinating. In response to the stimulus of motion, the cat focuses on the moving object, lies down in preparation for a pretend ambush, and, after a few seconds of concentration, intercepts its “prey” with amazing rapidity. Cats are naturally skillful hunters, and the level of these skills can be observed most notably when they play.

As they grow up, cats’ need for play significantly decreases. They become calmer and are not as often excited by stimuli. That said, pet cats retain some kittenish behavior patterns, so most of them are willing to engage in some play even when they are older.

Read more: Are my cats playing or fighting?

With What Kind of Toys Do Cats Play?

There is an excellent assortment of cats’ toys displayed in pet shops. These often include:

Balls

Cats find it very hard to resist a ball as it catches their eye, rolling or bouncing on the floor. These colorful balls are usually made of such materials as plastic, rubber, or sponge. Many of the balls have a small bell in them or otherwise make a sound as they roll.

Toy mice

There are wind-up toy mice with spring mechanisms that will run in circles on the floor. Cats are fascinated with any object that moves on its own and may continue playing with such a toy long after it stops moving. Also, there are simple toy mice, some containing catnip that the cat can easily throw in the air to catch again. Some cats love fur toy mice. Others prefer a setup where the toy mouse a stand with a spring holds out the toy for them to pounce at.

“Fish rods”

This popular type of cat toys (already mentioned above) resembles a fishing rod, with a small toy on the end of a string in place of the bait.

The great advantage of these “fishing rods” is that you can hold them while standing at some distance (approximately three feet) away from the cat. That way, the game is interactive, while the human participant cannot be scratched or bitten in the excitement of the play.

What these toys all have in common is that they mimic a cat’s natural prey. Bird, mouse, or small fish, these types of prey would attract a cat’s attention in the wild, so our pampered pet cats find their artificial counterparts irresistible.

Homemade Cat Toys: Safety first!

You can make great cat toys at home. In fact, your cat will probably find worthy toys for itself, such as a plastic plug that can be rolled on the floor, a paper ball, etc.

It is essential to check these “toys” to make sure they do not contain small parts that the cat might extract and swallow.

Other dangerous toys are balls of thread or knitting wool – the threads can be swallowed and become tangled in the cat’s intestines. Plastic baggies, in which the cat can become entangled and suffocated, and plastic containers holding potentially harmful beauty or skincare products or medications.

Such hazardous items should be put in cat-proof boxes or into cupboards and drawers in the same way that you would child-proof your home for curious toddlers. Better safe than sorry!

What to do if your cat won’t play

Happy-Adult-Female-Pet-Owner-Playing-with-Her-Siberian-Cat

Some cats, especially older sedentary ones, may lose their taste for playing with passive objects. A crunchy ball or a feathered toy that would drive a kitten literally up the wall may be less appealing to a senior cat. In this case, you have to invest in more stimulating toys to entice Kitty to play. Or – even better – spend more time engaging your cat in interactive play with you.

Before you encourage an older cat to play, make sure that he or she is healthy. Any cat that is in pain, malnourished, tired or stressed out, may prefer to avoid physical exertion. If your cat used to play and stopped doing so, you should talk to your vet to rule out medical problems. You may find out that your older cat has new health issues such as heart problems or arthritis, which call for shorter and less intensive playtime sessions.

Once the vet gives you the all-clear, you need to consider stress. Our guide about stress in cats should be your starting point. We suggest interactive playtime with Kitty as a stress-relief strategy! Encouraging your cat to play with you is part of the solution.

Try to introduce interactive playtime into your cat’s daily routine gradually. Keep sessions short and reward Kitty with a treat when they’re over. It may take a few days or even longer before your cat will hesitantly reach out to pounce at the toy. Once he or she gets the hang of it, you can gradually increase the length of the sessions. Listen to your cat, and if you see that he or she is bored or tired, it’s time to stop and offer a treat.

Need more help? Post your questions about cat play in the cat behavior forum where experienced cat owners can help you out.

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28 comments on “Playing With Your Cat: 10 Things You Need To Know

SweetiePie1 February 10, 2020
Good article. Very interesting to hear everyone's experiences regarding play with their cats. While I always played with my cats I was never around much during the day except for weekends because of work. That changed about 2 years ago and now I work out of the house. As a result in my change of schedule, my cats think it playtime pretty much all time they aren't sleeping. I really do make an effort now to spend time each day playing with them otherwise honestly its hard to get stuff done. And I love it!!!!!!
auntrhonda February 9, 2020
A cheap homemade toy: roll up aluminum foil into a tight ball! My cats bat it around to play by themselves, or I throw it. For my older cat, she prefers I throw it up the stairs and she chases it down.
Rich K February 5, 2020
Great article. When my Jasmine wants to play she goes into her room (actually the entire house is her room but this particular room has her cat castles and more of her stuff than any other room) and turns over on her back for a short belly rub followed by nibbling my hand and forearm. Then play time starts with the interactive toys. . When she is hanging in my bedroom and looks really bored with the lesser stock of toys in that room I find starting a good wrestling match (my hand wrist and forearm protected by a long sleeve shirt vs. my fuzzy little battle tank.) works wonders. I know this isn't supposed to be proper procedure but I get the feeling she really enjoys grabbing my arm with her feet and then trying to chew my arm. While my arm is perfectly protected she really puts the bite pressure on which I guess she can't do with her toys. I think she must be a reincarnated big cat that has a memory of hunting large prey in the wild, l guess she thinks I'm another "big cat" to play rough with. Jazz is a really fun cat so I don't mind being her entertainment.
Rich K August 6, 2019
ileen said:
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.
Not entirely sure what you mean by retractable. Just lifting the toy up to a higher place "retracts it". Years ago before I found commercial toys, I bought a long stick (maybe 1/2" wide 3ft. long from home Depot, tied a catnip mouse to a 3ft. thin elastic cord (from my local crafts/fabric store). and tied it to the end of the stick. Voila mouse on a stick and string. You could go overboard and buy a fishing reel to attach to the stick and a few small screw eyes on the stick as guides (basically building a fishing pole for cats). Using a thin elastic cord instead of fishing line you give the "line" play for kitty while still letting you cast the lure and reel it in at will. I also suppose you could buy an inexpensive fishing pole and simply replace the fishing line with a roll of thin elastic cord. Best of both worlds. Then you can tie whatever "bait" you like at the cat end of the line and change it just like you would a fishing lure.
tarasgirl06 January 14, 2019
myrnafaye said:
Looking for suggestions for a toy for my older cat ...she is 10..
In my (lifelong) experience with cats, I don't find any difference between toys kittens love and toys cats of all ages love. Our personal favorites are catnip filled toys, especially those by Yeowww! as well as string-pole-and-lure type toys like da Bird and Cat Dancer. These are widely available online and in brick-and-mortar "pet" supply stores.
myrnafaye January 13, 2019
Looking for suggestions for a toy for my older cat ...she is 10..
SuefromTN July 16, 2018
Siam is absolutely addicted to the laser pointer. I can just about direct him into any room or any direction as long as the pointer is around. He actively looks for it! ❤️
craftymelli June 15, 2018
This is a great article and really explains a lot of things about play I didn't know.
tarasgirl06 May 19, 2018
Caspers Human said:
We often just don't understand how to play with Casper. There are times when he'll sit at our feet and look up at us for attention but, when we try to reach down and play with him he'll run away. It's hard to tell whether he's being frisky and wants us to "chase" him or if he's trying to get away to safety. He will tussle and play-wrestle with his Girl-Human but when I do the same thing Casper will bolt. Should I give chase? Should I let him go? Girl-Human can use the laser pointer to play with Casper until he's tired out but, when I pick it up, he'll just sit there and stare at it. She can toss a toy and Casper will give chase but he'll just stare when I toss it. We don't know what Casper's life was before we adopted him. We know he was abandoned and he probably suffered some abuse. He's always been a skittish cat. That's not such a problem for us because we understand something about his life in "The Before-Time." He was a real 'fraidy cat when he first moved in and he's calmed down a lot in the past two years but it's so confusing when he gets so skittish for no apparent reason. He runs away when I sit down to take off my shoes after coming home. He gets scared when we walk in the door, after coming home from a shopping trip, while wearing our big, heavy winter coats. Those things, I can understand... A big, tall human wearing a big coat must look like a monster to a little cat! Sitting down and fussing around to take off my shoes and coat is just a lot of scary hubbub for a scaredy cat like Casper to deal with. We also get the hunch that there was a man in Casper's Before-Time who abused him and threw shoes and things at him but it's, sometimes, frustrating when we try to teach Casper that he's safe and that nobody is going to throw things at him anymore but he still runs away. We really, really want to play with Casper but, at times like that, we feel disappointed when, try as we might, we just can't figure out how he wants to play.
I am so sorry, for Casper and for you, that there has obviously been some trauma associated with men. Time, patience, and love are what I would recommend. Our latest-adopted family member came from a very loving home -- so loving, in fact, that he did not purr for quite some time after joining us, because I'm positive he was very sad, confused, and lonely. His dad told me he had a very good purr on him, though, so I knew that he was capable of this. In time, he came out of his shell, gradually, and now he sits in my lap every morning at breakfast time, rubbing and purring up a storm. *And around here, the toy of choice has always been da Bird -- if you don't know it, it's a wand toy with a feather lure on it. IRRESISTIBLE to cats.*
Janani.R.S May 19, 2018
Thanks a lot! This is a wonderful article! 5 stars!
Caspers Human March 27, 2018
We often just don't understand how to play with Casper. There are times when he'll sit at our feet and look up at us for attention but, when we try to reach down and play with him he'll run away. It's hard to tell whether he's being frisky and wants us to "chase" him or if he's trying to get away to safety. He will tussle and play-wrestle with his Girl-Human but when I do the same thing Casper will bolt. Should I give chase? Should I let him go? Girl-Human can use the laser pointer to play with Casper until he's tired out but, when I pick it up, he'll just sit there and stare at it. She can toss a toy and Casper will give chase but he'll just stare when I toss it. We don't know what Casper's life was before we adopted him. We know he was abandoned and he probably suffered some abuse. He's always been a skittish cat. That's not such a problem for us because we understand something about his life in "The Before-Time." He was a real 'fraidy cat when he first moved in and he's calmed down a lot in the past two years but it's so confusing when he gets so skittish for no apparent reason. He runs away when I sit down to take off my shoes after coming home. He gets scared when we walk in the door, after coming home from a shopping trip, while wearing our big, heavy winter coats. Those things, I can understand... A big, tall human wearing a big coat must look like a monster to a little cat! Sitting down and fussing around to take off my shoes and coat is just a lot of scary hubbub for a scaredy cat like Casper to deal with. We also get the hunch that there was a man in Casper's Before-Time who abused him and threw shoes and things at him but it's, sometimes, frustrating when we try to teach Casper that he's safe and that nobody is going to throw things at him anymore but he still runs away. We really, really want to play with Casper but, at times like that, we feel disappointed when, try as we might, we just can't figure out how he wants to play.
tarasgirl06 February 12, 2018
Excellent article, but I'm wondering why you and Jackson Galaxy seem to disagree on having multiple cats play together and on working cats until they pant. He discusses these subjects in "MY CAT FROM HELL" episodes.
ileen April 26, 2017
ileen said:
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.
Thanks but that one doesn't look retractable. I'm looking for a wand with retractable wire & mouse on the end.
Catisfication April 25, 2017
ileen said:
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.
Kats 'n us Rabbit Fur Gray & White Mouse Teaser Wand Cat Toy I have never used it so hope you like it
ileen April 6, 2017
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.
annah8 April 6, 2017
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.
tarasgirl06 April 5, 2017
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.  
Anne March 22, 2017
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. 
tarasgirl06 March 21, 2017
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?
jkuras March 15, 2017
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
grooverite January 4, 2016
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.
caitini November 18, 2015
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.
marian100 March 8, 2015
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.
sheila eaton February 27, 2015
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.
coneja February 3, 2015
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!
catladylou January 31, 2015
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
mservant January 29, 2015
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.  
raysmyheart January 29, 2015
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!

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