Hey there, I’m so glad you have ended up on this page: What Every Cat Parent Needs to Know About Playing With Their Cat!
This is probably one of the most important posts I will ever create.
So, let’s get right into it!
Playing with your cat is essential.
Play is the secret. They keys to the cat behavior kingdom lie within the depths of play therapy.
It may seem like I am overstating things here, but I can assure you, I am not.
No matter what’s going on with your cat, playing with them will create a noticeable improvement in their behavior.
(With the exception of cats that are in pain due to arthritis, injury, etc., or have other health conditions. But proper, low-impact stimulation can still be beneficial!)
Let me be clear, I am NOT saying that play on it’s own is the golden fix to every cat behavior problem.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If it were, this blog wouldn’t exist.
But the impact that play can have on your cat’s life, and therefore your life, cannot be overstated.
It is one of the main tools every cat parent needs in their arsenal for behavior modification, and just for a happy, healthy cat in general!
In this post, I will explain why play is so important, and describe the three different types of play.
You will also learn the best ways to engage your cat, and to create both physically, and mentally stimulating and satisfying play sessions!
We’ve got a lot to cover here, so let’s get to it.
The Life of a Wild Cat & Why Play is So Important to the House Cat
Even though cats have lived alongside humans for over 10,000 years, they have never been consistently bred and domesticated (like dogs, and other companion animals.)
Their DNA is almost exactly the same as the wildcat’s.
This is because the main appeal of having a cat around back in the day, and still for some people, was to hunt rodents and vermin. So, humans in general, were not compelled to change the natural behaviors of cats through controlled breeding and domestication.
This predatory mentality is still the predominant mindset of a cat’s existence.
Their bodies and minds have naturally evolved to hunt, to survive.
That means that when you take this same cat, socialize him, and make him a house cat, he is still going to retain the instinctual need to hunt.
This instinctual need going unmet has a tendency to create problems in the household.
They can range anywhere from play aggression toward you (going after your feet while you walk/your arms when you move them, biting, grabbing onto you with claws, etc.), to inter-cat aggression, boredom (which can lead to a myriad of behaviors), depression, compulsive behaviors such as over-grooming, and much more.
I mean, I get it… I would go crazy, too, if I were stuck inside day after day with no stimulation, other than you walking across the room.
My cat, Doja, is like a ticking time bomb when he’s not played with. If you watch him, you can see him slowly get more and more agitated and worked up, until he can’t stand it anymore, and explodes in one way or another.
The level of confidence a cat has relies a great deal on him doing what he is built to do. Hunt.
Now, I’m not saying to go buy a mouse from the pet store, or catch a lizard from outside and bring it in for your cat to catch. Actually, I’m going to ask you not to do that, because that’s extremely cruel, amongst other things. I won’t get into that here.
But you can simulate a hunting experience for your cat through play.
A natural cycle for a cat in the wild would be:
Sleep, Hunt, Catch, Kill, Eat, Groom, Sleep.
This is the same rhythm that can be emulated in the home. The only difference is a toy will be used in place of live prey.
If your cat does not currently have a routine close to this, or maybe it’s nowhere near this, be prepared to see some amazing things happen! 🙂
The 3 Types of Play With Toys
There are three different types of play (with toys):
- A Combination
Solo Play: It’s exactly what it sounds like; the cat playing with a toy by itself.
Interactive Play : In a nutshell, using a toy to play with your cat.
Combo Play: This is somewhere in between interactive and solo play. A good example is a toy that is motorized. The cat can play with it on their own, but it is still interactive.
*Important Note: Combo play is not a substitute for interactive play where you are present and engaged.
Interactive play is the one that we are going to primarily focus on for the purpose of this post.
It is the ultimate simulation of hunting in the home.
When I said, “The keys to the cat behavior kingdom lie within the depths of play therapy,” interactive play is what I was referring to.
This is an example of interactive play. But keep in mind, your cat doesn’t have to play this intensely to reap the benefits.
Playing With Your Cat: How to Do it, and How Often?
Okay, I know what you’re thinking…
“Lauren, I’m not an idiot, I know how to play with a cat. It’s not rocket science.”
And you’re right, it’s not rocket science.
That being said, it’s not immediately intuitive to most people, and I’ve seen many struggle in this department.
That is, until they learn some tips, and how to get into the mindset.
Most people either wave the toy around or in circles like a crazy person, or they plop the toy on the cat’s head or right in front of their face over and over like they’re dunking a cookie into a glass of milk. (If either of these are you, don’t feel bad. It is extremely common, give yourself credit for trying!)
What you need to remember is that you’re trying to simulate an experience for your cat. A hunting experience.
I’m not sure about you, but if I were a bird, I sure as h*ll wouldn’t be diving into a cat’s face going “Eat me, eat me, I’m so tasty!”
If it’s going to be a satisfying experience, you need to think like the bird. Be the bird….
Okay, not literally, use the toy you weirdo!
Or mouse… or if you live in Florida, like me, lizard. (My cats love to stalk the lizards when they crawl up onto the screens in the lanai.)
Emulate the movements of the prey. Hide under and behind things, and gently twitch after lying still for a few seconds. Or peek out from behind an object. If you’re a bird or flying insect, fly and walk. If you’re a snake or crawling bug, stay on the ground.
Toward the end of the play session, make the toy act as though it is injured and slowing down. Then, within a few minutes, stop moving and end the session.
*This technique is very helpful when rectifying behavior problems. Especially play aggression and inter-cat aggression. The reward helps the cat to feel satisfied, as though it has done it’s job.*
A lot of cats are different. This is part of why we love them so much!
I have to play with all three of my cats in different ways.
Behaviorists typically recommend a wand, or fishing pole type toy, with some sort of bird or mouse attachment, and for a good reason! These toys are wonderful.
They make it much easier to mimic prey, and they keep your hands away (never use your hands as toys, unless you want to get bitten and scratched on a regular basis!).
You’ll need to spend some time with your cat, trying out different things to see what floats their boat. Some cats are harder to engage at first, especially if this has not been a part of your regular routine.
Which Bring us to…
(drum roll, please….)
How to Engage a Seemingly Uninterested Cat in Play:
This was Nia after Ellie came onto the scene, and Doja after her.
She was scared to play, always looking over her shoulder worried that there would be another cat there about to pounce.
But remember what I said, a cat’s confidence level relies a great deal on successfully satisfying their instinct to hunt.
When your cat captures a toy, he/she now feels a sense of ownership over that spot.
Therefore, hunting is a physical and psychological experience, and must be treated as such.
Here are some Tips to Help Engage Your Cat in Play:
- If you have other cats in the home that make the cat you’re attempting to play with nervous, don’t be afraid to separate them.
- Also, if you are trying to get cats to get along, do not play with them with the same toy at the same time. Only do this if the cats have proven that they can take turns, and share the toy.
Test out Different “prey” types:
- While you’re playing, pretend to be different types of prey each time (bugs, snakes, birds, etc.) and see what they like the best.
Try different Toys
- Fishing Rod toys with birds, mice, etc. I like Da Bird the best. I also recommend wire toys, like the Cat Dancer mimic the movements of a fly, or a cricket.
If using a fishing pole toy, take the attachment off.
- I had to do this with Nia for a while. The little clasp on the end was less intimidating, and she went crazy for it. Once this was routine, and her confidence was built up enough, I put the feather toy back on and she played with it immediately.
Allow your cat to capture their prey throughout the session.
- This is important. It isn’t a game of keep-away. The whole idea is for your cat to catch the prey. Multiple captures helps satisfy their instinct. If you watch a cat catch something, they tend to let it go and catch it again multiple times. You can wait to resume movement 10 seconds or so after your cat lets it go, if you would like.
How Often Should You be Playing with Your Cat?
Ideally, you should be playing with your cat 2 times a day, 3 if there are pretty major behavior issues.
These sessions should last 10-15 mins. I go longer with Doja a lot of the time, because he is so energetic and it takes longer to tire him out.
Play sessions should become routine! If you’re looking for results, a session every so often when you’re fed up with your cat’s behavior, while better than nothing, is not going to get either of you very far.
Sometimes I do these sessions while I’m on the phone, or doing something that doesn’t require my full visual attention. If you absolutely must, you could even do this while you’re winding down at night with the TV on. Anytime you can squeeze a play session in, do it!
Ask family and friends to help. If you have other people around the house, ask them to share in the responsibility! Kids usually love to play with cats, just make sure they know the proper way, and keep the toy away from their body, so they don’t get hurt. With young kids, having them pretend to be a snake usually works the best.
I’ve also found that when friends come over, they generally like to play with the cats as well.
Give a meal or yummy treat to mark the end of the play session!
You’ll be surprised at how much this little tidbit will help with behavior issues! It completes the cycle of hunt, catch, kill, eat. This little added bonus helped so much with Doja’s aggression toward the girl cats.
I play with the cats in the morning, before breakfast, and in the evening, before their dinner.
You could add in a play session in the middle of the day, or even better, at night right before bedtime. Playing before bedtime, followed by a small meal or treats, will be especially helpful if your cat keeps you up at night, or wakes you up really early in the morning.
Playing with your cat is one of the best things you can do for them. Even if your relationship with your cat feels broken right now, I promise you that play will be a healing, bonding experience for both of you.
Scheduled interactive play is how I was able to integrate Ellie Mae successfully into the home with Nia. Before it was scheduled, routine, and happened prior to feeding time, there were constant fights, tufts of brown fur flying, and a terrified beat up Nia. 🙁
Also, consistent play was the key to building up Nia’s confidence! She used to be very timid and nervous until I implemented a play routine.
So, to recap:
- Cats absolutely need to play.
- Interactive Play sessions are the best possible way to satisfy your cat’s need to hunt.
- Play sessions should happen at least 2x/day, for 10-15 minutes each time.
- Use the tips above if you’re having a difficult time getting your cat to engage in play.
- Make it a routine! Consistency is key.
- Ideally, play before feeding time.
Thanks so much for reading!
I post new content every week.
Comments and questions below are encouraged and appreciated! 🙂