#1 Tip – Play

If you want to do one thing to make your cat’s life better, play with them!

Opportunities for play are one of the most valuable things you can give your cat. Play provides all the following benefits and more:

  • Expends energy and appropriately uses natural hunting behaviors
  • Provides exercise to promote health, especially in older or overweight cats
  • Relieves stress and builds confidence
  • Encourages bonding with new and familiar human family members
  • Creates a positive experience for all cats in the home to share
  • Rewards desirable behavior
Cat Playing with String
Photo Credit: David-Karich/Pixabay.com
Cats without the opportunity to play can develop a number of unwanted behavior including:
  • Pouncing, biting, and scratching hands and feet
  • Harassing or annoying other pets
  • Destructive behavior
  • Annoying nighttime activity including vocalizing
  • Stress-related behaviors including litter box problems and compulsive grooming
Feline play is based on hunting behaviors such as stalking, pouncing, and biting. These are natural behaviors that cats need an outlet for. Even shy, overweight, and senior cats benefit from a chance to play.

Interactive Play

Interactive play between you and your cat is the most meaningful and useful type of play. It should happen routinely every day. Imagine the times your cat is most likely to be active and plan the play sessions for that time. Young and active cats generally benefit from 10-15 minute sessions, 2-3 times every day. Cats displaying unwanted or challenging behavior should also be given the opportunity for play multiple times a day. Typically play sessions are most beneficial in the morning, late afternoon/early evening, and right before you go to bed.

Steps for Interactive Play:

  1. Find an appropriate toy to act as your “prey.” Cat wands and “fishing pole” style toys are the best to use as they keep the cat’s mouth and claws away from your hands and can be used the mimic the movements of a mouse, snake, or bird. If you and your cat are new to playing together, try a few different types of toys. Some cats prefer toys that “slither” on the ground while some enjoy those that “fly” through the air. The Go Cat brand has a lot of good options including the “Cat Catcher” and “Da Bird”. I also like the “Cat Dancer”.
  2. Move the toy around in the room like a prey animal and remember that prey is not going to walk into the animal’s mouth. Try to challenge the cat!
  3. Every now and then let a cat get a bite in by catching the toy. At this point, offer the cat a treat as his reward during the “hunt”. This also helps convince the determined cat to drop the toy so the game can continue.
  4. After 10-15 minutes and a few intermittent treats, begin slowing the toy down. For example, maybe the toy that was “flying” now stays on the ground.
  5. Drop the toy to the ground (it’s “dead”) and give the cat a portion on its daily food.

After Play:

  1. After play and eating, the cat should naturally settle down to groom and then sleep. If you have a cat who likes to start play at inappropriate times, you can make use of this play/sleep pattern by playing with your cat just before you need quiet time to work or relax.
  2. Don’t re-engage with the cat after play has ended. Encourage them to relax by providing a quiet bed in an area away from household activity. If your cat tries to restart play, calmly lead them to their bed and offer treats or small toys there.

Solo Play

Interactive play with your cat provides the greatest benefit but some cats needs more play than your schedule will allow. Cats generally alternate between being active for short periods and sleeping so solo play options are valuable for those times that they are awake but alone. They will enjoy having new toys and experiences to explore during their days (and nights). For maximum effect, rotate solo toys frequently to keep them interesting. Many cats aren’t interested in toys just lying around the house because these toys don’t trigger their hunting instincts. Create interest by adding catnip to small toys and hiding food and treats in bags and boxes. Solo toys and enrichment can usually be very inexpensive, even free, so it is easy to incorporate new and interesting experiences for your cat.

When introducing new toys or games for your cat, always carefully supervise to ensure he isn’t eating parts of the toy or creating small pieces that could be swallowed.

Examples of solo toys and enrichment options:

  • Feeding toys such as Kong products or the many other products to be found at your local pet store. Feed some or all of your cat's meals in one of these toys or use for bonus treats during the day.
  • Small store bought toys, with or without catnip. You can toss them in a baggie of catnip overnight to “refresh” them occasionally.
  • Tunnels, bags, and boxes to explore and sit in (also useful for gaining internet fame)
  • Perches near windows that allow your cat to watch birds outside. You can even hang a bird feeder outside the window for some instant “cat TV”.
  • Videos and DVDs designed for cats. 
  • Ping-Pong balls in boxes, bags, even your bathtub!
  • Battery operated toys that move, spin, or include a laser light to chase

Keep it simple (and cheap) by hiding food or treats in: 

  • Paper towel/toilet paper tubes (pinch ends to hold treats inside)
  • Tissue boxes or similar
  • Paper bags
  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • Plastic food containers with holes
  • Lengths of PVC pipe with holes drilled in them

“But what if my cat isn’t interested in playing?”

It is common for owners to find their cats uninterested in their attempts at providing playtime. Sometimes this is because the cats aren’t used to playing and need some coaxing. Sometimes the cat is too stressed or fearful to play. Other times owners aren’t capturing their cat’s attention with their attempts and need to rethink their strategy.

If your cat is overweight, senior, or “lazy/mellow” and hasn’t played in the past:

  • Get creative with your toy selection. Try laser lights, ribbon/string toys, wand toys with tiny mice and feathers on the end, etc. Rub catnip on the end to make it extra interesting.
  • Start slow. Don’t expect your cat to instantly jump into action or make huge moves. A few bats with a paw are a fine place to start. Reward frequently and keep sessions short.

If your cat is shy or fearful:

  • Use a nice long “fishing pole” type toy that lets you keep some distance from your cat so she doesn’t feel trapped or uncomfortable.
  • Have sessions in the spaces where your cat feels safest or chooses to spend most of her time. As she becomes more comfortable playing, slowly use play to encourage her to explore other areas.
  • Move the toy slowly and quietly so as not to startle your cat. Even if all she does is watch the toy or give a little bat or two with her paw, you’re on the right track.
  • If your cat is comfortable, hand feed her after the play session. If she not ready for that yet, just sit nearby while she eats but keep enough distance that she still feels safe to eat.

If you’re still having trouble, consider the type of toy you are using and how you are moving it:

  • Remember, you are trying to mimic prey for your cat so think about how a snake slithers, a mouse sneaks around corners, and a bird flies.
  • Cats typically respond best to movement from side to side past them rather than straight towards them.
  • Try to avoid just shaking the toy in your cat’s face.

This post has more tips about reluctant players. 

Need help using play to work on your cat’s behavior problems?