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Playing with Cats—Everything You Should Know

Cat Playing with Toy
Written by Elizabeth Italia, UW-AAB
—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸

From kittens to adults, playtime is very important to feed a cat’s natural instincts, drain excess energy, promote health, and of course, build a strong relationship with their parents.

Let’s take a look at various aspects of a cat’s behavior, what toys to get, and how to play with your fur baby to ensure a better bond with your fur baby.

Cat-Human Relationship

The relationship between cats and humans is very different than dogs and humans. Dogs view their human as their owner and the leader of their pack. Cats view their owners as equals, and think of us as mothers or siblings. 

Although cats are solitary hunters, they do play with each other and often live around other cats. This starts when they are kittens, rolling around with their siblings and their mother. They way they hunt is mirroring the same skills they use when they play: stalking, striking, and batting things around. 

Play is an important part of a happy, balanced kitty, and it’s crucial we address that need, especially since indoor cats aren’t stalking and killing prey, it’s important we replace it with healthy activities.

This will strengthen the bond between you and your cat, increase their confidence, decrease the likelihood of behavior-related issues like aggression or litter box problems.

Short Attention Spans

Scientists have a really hard time studying exactly how smart cats are because they have short attention spans and get bored extremely easily. Even in experiments, researchers can only get cats to do things a few times before they’re distracted.

This is important because you will likely need a variety of toys that you can swap out (just like parents do with babies and young children). Although your cat will undoubtedly have favorites, do your best to introduce new toys every now and then and every few months, rotate which toys you leave out.

Solo Play

You may notice your cat playing and think they clearly like to play on their own, so you don’t have to play with them too. Most cats do play on their own, but human-cat play is crucial to building a bond and keeping your cat moving and healthy. 

Common toys that you should have around for solo play include:

  • Balls: Most of these have bells, so you may want to hide them at bedtime.

  • Toy Mice: My cats love the smaller sizes, especially hitting them under doors and furniture.

  • Crickle Balls: They love when you hold, crinkle, then toss them! The sound always grabs their attention.

  • Kickers: Cats hold them between their legs and kick with their back feet.

  • Plastic Springs: They bounce, they roll, and they’re perfect for batting around. 

  • Roller Towers: Typically made of plastic, these toys have levels, each with a ball on a track.

  • Automatic Toys: Some of these toys hide objects, like feathers, inside and they pop out randomly. Some even have wands that spin around concealed under material. Although you have to turn them on, most of them have timers and automatically turn off after a certain period of time.

When & How Long

When should you play with your cat? The easiest answer is every day. Obviously, a kitten will need more playtime than an adult, and a senior may not have much interest in play at all. A good rule of thumb is 20-30 minutes a day, broken up into at least two sessions. 

Cats are most active at dusk and dawn, so if you’re able to capitalize on their instincts, those times are best. However, indoor cats obviously have a different lifestyle than outdoor cats.

The most important thing is that you play with your cats daily, so don’t beat yourself up if your schedule doesn’t permit for dusk and dawn playtimes. I really like to play with my cats before bed to drain their energy so they don’t wake me up overnight.

Also, sometimes cats will tell you they want to play by bringing you toys. Don’t ignore them. Even if you’re short on time, take a few minutes to interact with them.

Interactive Play

To strengthen the bond with your cat, you want to use toys that require some work on your part (as well as the cats). The best toys you can use to play with your cats include:

  • Small mice and balls - You can toss and they chase after. Some cats will retrieve and bring back so you can play fetch with them.

  • Wand toys - These include some sort of handle or stick, plus a string or wire that has an attachment on the end. Common attachments are feathers, but my favorite toy has a wire string and a small mouse at the end. When I move it, the wire is invisible to the cat and they only see the mouse. It makes them go crazy trying to catch it.

One of the most important things is the way you play with your cat. You need to have the toy act like prey in the way you move it. You don’t want to move it too fast, because a major part of how cats play (and hunt) is by stalking.

Moving the toy slowly will draw their attention. They typically get low to the ground, do the butt wiggle, then pounce!

You want to balance allowing the cat to catch the toy, and then sometimes moving it for them to follow. For young cats, try to get them running and jumping. If you have shelves or trees, use them! 

Make sure you’re animated and excited during play. That will make your cat have more fun. If you are bored, your cat will know and not enjoy it as much. Congratulate your cat when they catch something.

Encourage them to chase, jump, and run. Don’t look at playtime as work, but fun for you too!

How do you know when your cat has had enough? If they start panting, stop. If they begin laying on their side, they are starting to fatigue. You can also feel their paw pads, which may feel very hot when they’ve had enough.

Don’t rely on the cat to completely give up, because some young cats really can push it. Look for the basic signs I just mentioned, then stop.

Post Play

One of the most important things you can do is reward your cat with a meal or treats after playtime. Why? Because it follows the natural hunting experience of catch prey, play with prey, consume prey. It can also be a great way to teach a more sedentary cat to be more active. If they know a meal or treat is coming, they may be more inclined to move.

Warning About Tablet Games and Lasers

When a cat catches an object, serotonin gets released in their brain. Tablet cat games and lasers can definitely get your cat moving, but if they never catch anything, they aren’t getting the payoff. Many behaviors don’t like them, and recommend avoiding any toy that can’t be caught. 

In my opinion, balance is key. Outdoor cats don’t catch everything they chase. If a tablet cat game or laser seems to engage your cat, especially if they aren’t overly active, I would let them play, but I would not allow that to be the only “toy” they interact with during that play session.

At some point, switch to a wand toy or something they can catch. Also, if you notice ANY anxiety or aggression in your cat overall, do not use tablet games or lasers, because not catching could be contributing to these issues.

Stay Away From …

Many toys have things like strings and ribbons and other materials attached to them. It’s hard to say what your cat will find enticing and want to chew on. I have a cat that chews on ribbon and another that licks feathers.

Pay close attention to your cat, especially during solo play. If you see them eating any part of a cat toy, remove the toy, and avoid that material moving forward. Better safe than sorry. Even a small string can cause major GI issues.

Let the Games Begin

Now you know why playtime is so important to your cat, and why they sometimes bring you random toys. It’s also very helpful in decreasing unpleasant behaviors like aggression and litter box problems. Remember, daily playtime is important for their health, plus it will improve your bond with them too. Okay, now, go … it’s time to play! 

Article by  🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist