Play Today: Encouraging a Reluctant Cat

“Gina Was Playing!”

Those were the first words out of the volunteer’s mouth as they approached my desk. Their excitement was obvious and I had to agree! Gina was a senior cat who had been surrendered to the shelter several months earlier. When she first came in she was hissing and defensive in her kennel, scared of everyone. A switch to a larger room and plenty of time had helped her start adjusting and she was now on the adoption floor, waiting for her new home. She wasn’t without her challenges though. Still shy with new people, she had grown confident enough to enjoy petting from friends; that is, until she was done and would let you know with a quick nip. The bites didn’t break skin but were enough to make potential adopters look for other cats.

Why was Gina playing so exciting? Because up until now, she hadn’t shown much interest. And that made it extra difficult to help her find her new home. Play is a great way to introduce new people to a cat and help them bond. It can help shy cats feel more confident and give “feisty” cats an outlet for their energy. If Gina didn’t want petting, we could offer people a toy and let them play with her. With this new activity, Gina’s world could be bigger and her life better.

It’s Worth It

Interactive play has many important benefits for cats. Like with Gina, play can help with bonding, build trust and confidence in a shy cat, and decrease stress. Play is also a great way to manage a younger cat’s energy level.

Play is so important that I’ve deemed it my “number one tip” to give your cat their best life and work on any behavior problems. You can read more about the benefits of interactive play and the steps to a great play session on this page. But it’s worth talking about more because some owners really struggle to get their cat interested.

Get Into the Game

Like Gina, many cats don’t show interest in playing right away. They may be stressed, older, overweight, or, if they haven’t had many opportunities, just out of practice. You can make the game easier and more appealing for them.

Toy Types

Some cats prefer ribbons, some little mice, and others like feathers. Try a variety of toys to see if one catches your cat’s attention. If you cat is a senior or has known vision loss, try a toy with a bell or other noise maker so your can more easily track it. Rubbing some catnip on a toy can also spark interest and lower inhibition.

After going through every toy in our stash, the one that Gina preferred was a laser pointer. Many cats enjoy pouncing on that little red dot but without anything to “kill” at the end of their hunt, a cat can be left unsatisfied and wound-up. To leave Gina relaxed after her play session, her friends ended the game by using the laser pointer to direct her toward a small toy which she could grab and bite. A few little treats also helped solidify her winning “hunt.”

white cat ready to pounce
Image by Nives Čipić from Pixabay

Other Factors

Here are a few other ways you can change up your play session to get your cat on board:

Other Ways to Play

Tried it all and still not getting your cat interested in interactive play with a wand toy? There are other ways to play with your cat that can have the same benefits.


Teaching your cat basic behaviors uses their mind and body in many of the same ways that interactive play does. You can use food treats to reward tricks like “spin” or “beg” that are simple to lure. Another useful skill is touching a target. Teach your cat to touch your hand or the end of a pen and you can use that to do things like have them come to you or encourage them onto the scale at the vet.

Food Hide and Seek

Most of us know that dogs are great at finding food with their noses but did you know your cat can do it too? Make a game of hiding small treats around a room for your cat to find. With your cat in another room, place a few treats in different but obvious places. Bring your cat in and walk around the room with them while they discover the goodies. As your cat starts to catch on to the game, make the treats harder to find.

Agility or Obstacle Courses

cat and toy in tunnel
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Again, a common idea from the dog world that cats can take over too! Introduce simple obstacles like jumps and tunnels using lots of food rewards. Don’t force your cat to do the obstacles; let them explore slowly if they need to. Once they are comfortable with one jump, add a second and third. You can incorporate your furniture as well. Up the stairs, over a jump, through a tunnel, over the bed, and back. Both you and your cat will be tired!

Play is a great tool for managing behavior problems but it’s only one step. If you’re struggling with unwanted behavior, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.