Go Play on Your Own: Independent Play for Cats

The past few months have brought me many cat guardians looking for help with annoying or aggressive behaviors. There are many reasons for these behaviors, but typically one of my first recommendations is around increased play. Behavior problems in cats can often be tied to boredom or lack of outlets for necessary behaviors. The next problem becomes: how to provide enough play, while still having a life beyond your cat.

Play is the Way

Cats need play and mental stimulation. Their deep-down feline nature is as a hunter and play fills that role for the house cat. Without it, they can become bored, destructive, annoying, restless, withdrawn, and/or aggressive. Lack of play and stimulation can also lead to stress-related health issues and obesity.

Cat Playing with String
Photo Credit: David-Karich/Pixabay.com

Ideally, your cat is getting regular, daily interactive play with you. This is the best kind of play for supporting their health and behavior. However, many cats need more than we can provide directly. That’s where independent play comes in. Whether as additional hunting opportunities for the active cat, distractions from nuisance behavior, or just to promote health and happiness, independent play should be part of your cat’s daily life.

The Challenge

Once you’ve decided your cat needs more independent play, the challenge is how to provide it in a way that gets them to engage. Many cat guardians tell me “my cat ignores the dozens of toys I give them” or “they only want to play with me.” 

The biggest issue with encouraging independent play is that stationary toys, just laying still on the floor, are boring! Cats are generally triggered by movement, so those little stuffed mice and balls may not get them going. If playing is hunting, then those toys are already dead and not worth any effort.

Beyond “Dead” Toys

If all the little cat toys in the world aren’t interesting to your cat, you need to find out what does spark their interest. And potentially expand the definition of “play” a bit. 

Safety Note: Always supervise your cat with new toys or activities to make sure they aren’t consuming non-food parts or otherwise getting into unsafe situations. 

Food Puzzles

Nearly all cats can benefit from working for their food. This is an easy way to add more play to your cat’s day and adding food to the picture is a quick way to build motivation to interact with the game. You can learn more here.

Toys with Movement or Noise

If “dead” toys are boring, it makes sense that toys that move or make noise would seem more alive and thus more exciting. There are two types of toys in this category, toys with on/off switches to start the fun and toys that come to live when the cat starts interacting with them. Not every cat will take the initiative, but for those who do, these toys can become a fun pastime. 

Cat TV

While it may not seem like traditional play, watching prey move around is, in fact, part of the hunt. Watching animals (birds, bugs, squirrels) outside a window or on TV can be a great activity. If you’re using nature as TV, make sure your window is securely shut or fitted with a pet-safe screen. You can even hang a bird feeder outside to add to the excitement (assuming you are willing to maintain it and that there aren’t outdoor cats around). YouTube is a good source of videos of birds and small animals that many cats will happily sit and watch.

Scent and Taste

Again, this may not seem like play, but engaging your cat’s senses is an effective way of working their brain and burning energy. Live, cat-safe plants can make for a fun experience (try live catnip or cat grass, though there are others). Dried catnip is a common choice and many cats enjoy it, but did you know that there are other things that cause a similar effect in cats? Silver vine, tatarian honeysuckle, and valerian can all be used as scent enrichment. If your cat isn’t into catnip, they will most likely be interested in one of these. 

You can also bring some outdoors inside for your cat to investigate. Branches and pinecones can make interesting additions to your cat’s day. Just make sure you know what type of plant you are bringing in and that it is cat safe. Avoid anything that gets sprayed with chemicals. Don’t forget to watch your cat to make sure they aren’t eating these things. 

And So On

What does your cat show interest in? How do they cause mischief? Can you provide them with similar activities, but in a more appropriate way? Here are a few more ideas:

Kitten playing game on iPad
Did you know there are apps for cats? This kitten is happily entertaining himself on my (messy) desk.

Up the Ante

Because independent play and enrichment can be less engaging than play with people, or other pets, you may have to take steps to increase the novelty and interest. 

Your house panther needs play and mental stimulation to be their best, and least annoying, self. You can add a lot to their life with the right choice of activities, in the right ways. What will your cat enjoy?

If you need help figuring out how to entertain your cat or if you are dealing with a behavior problem, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.