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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?
- 1. Create the right setting.
- 2. Imitate the prey’s behavior.
- 3. Don’t frustrate your cat.
- 4. Don’t exhaust your cat.
- 5. Warm up – play – cool down.
- 6. Set up a daily schedule.
- 7. More than one cat? Play separately.
- 8. Feed after playing.
- 9. Keep your fingers out of the way.
- 10. Play throughout the cat’s life.
- How And Why Do Cats Play?
- With What Kind of Toys Do Cats Play?
- Homemade Cat Toys: Safety first!
- What to do if your cat won’t play
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.
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.
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?
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?
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:
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.
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.
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
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.