We often overlook playing with our cats, yet play is the best tool to train and socialize a cat. Play sessions also improve a cat's physical and mental health and encourage good behavior.
“Playing with your cat strengthens the human-cat bond and encourages a healthy body condition while reducing unwanted behaviors,” explains Jolene Pelmear, a cat behaviorist and para veterinary with years of experience in an animal hospital.
According to Pelmear and other feline specialists, playing regularly discourages destructive cat deeds, such as inappropriate scratching, aggression, or spraying. It also reduces stress. “Stress is a trigger to some deadly feline diseases, so prevent a vet visit and play with your cat,” Pelmear urges.
It seems obvious that play and exercise are important for people and cats alike; however, many cat guardians don’t make time to play or don’t understand how they can use play to discourage bad behavior.
That’s why today we’ll answer the central questions on the topic of playing with your cat. Here's what we'll cover:
Why should I play with my cat?
Playing with your cat is very important for several reasons. It not only helps your cat release built-up energy, but it also prevents undesirable habits, such as picking fights with other pets or scratching the sofa.
Moving also helps your cat maintain a healthy weight and keeps muscles and joints strong, which can help a cat live longer. On top of this, playing keeps the animal’s mind active and alert. Cats are intelligent creatures and need mental stimulation.
Games help lower stress levels, too – for cats and humans. So while playing can help you recharge, it also helps stressed cats wind down. Don’t forget that stressed cats often develop behavioral problems such as urine spraying.
Cats are more likely to exhibit unwanted behaviors when they aren’t exerting themselves during playtime, explains Jolene Pelmear, who's helped make cats more adoptable at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“While health problems should always be ruled out by a vet, many of the common cat-owner complaints can be fixed by regular, active playtimes and an enriched environment,” Pelmear points out.
How to play with a cat?
All cats play differently – one likes to catch the toy while another prefers a long chase quickly. Kittens have very different needs from senior cats and Bengal cats are far more energetic than Persians.
As you consider what makes your cat tick, try to use our 10 tips to make the most of each cat play session.
1. Engage in interactive play. This means that you have to control the toy and make it move like prey. Buy something that looks like a rodent or a bird and mimic the animal’s actions when playing. For example, mice use rapid starts and stops. They sometimes freeze in fear or dart away in a different direction. So, do the same with your toy – scurry across the floor and dart under the couch. Use toys on poles, toys on strings, or soft toys you can drag or toss.
2. Incorporate activities that are common among cats in the wild. Domestic cats are like cougars, lynxes and mountain cats, so they love to hide, climb, jump, stalk, chase, pounce, trap and bite.
3. Create a fun environment. Cardboard boxes and paper bags always capture a cat’s attention. To create a more interesting and challenging game, move the toy behind them or under door gaps, rugs or blankets.
4. Don’t expect your cat to run the whole time. When cats hunt, they try to stay as quiet as possible. They stay low until they get close enough to strike and then pounce.
5. If you have more than one cat, make time to play with each separately. Have a toy for each pet or you’d risk having one cat intimidate the other. Another option is to play with one pet while the other is in a separate room with a catnip toy and then switch.
6. Let your cat win. Ease off the play sessions by making the toy move less and less (like a wounded animal), and let your pet catch and “kill” it. Usually, cats catch the toy with their front paws and then start biting and kicking it with their back feet.
7. Use toys that serve a different purpose – one to carry, one to roll, one to sleep with, etc. Bring only three-four toys to each play session, so your cat doesn’t get bored. If you are new to the cat, offer different toys to find out which ones are preferred.
8. If you use a laser toy or a cat-game app, finish the game with a toy that your cat can actually catch. Games involving virtual prey can be frustrating to your cat if there’s nothing to “kill” at the end.
9. Don’t use your hands. Using your fingers, hands or other body parts teaches cats that the human body is alright to bite. And, according to cat logic, if it’s okay to bite your toes when you wiggle them on the sofa, then it’s perfectly fine to bite them when you’re sleeping at night. So set clear rules and follow them; otherwise, your pet will get confused.
10. Observe your cat’s behavior. If it’s getting intense or angry, stop playing. If it walks away, take a break. Like anything, moderation is key and each feline personality is different. Go at your cat’s pace and tailor the games to its abilities and limitations – especially with older cats.
How to play with an older cat?
As cats age, movement becomes more important to preserving physical agility and mental alertness. Don’t wait for an invitation, though – senior cats are more laid back and might not start a game.
Provoke your cat by presenting new toys or by changing the environment. For example, leave out a cardboard box, crumpled paper, or a paper bag and start playing around them.
Try to tease with fishing-rod-type toys. Senior cats prefer slower games, and some enjoy toys that move across the floor or soft toys to wrestle with.
If your pet is experiencing a decreased range of motion and stiffness, play floor games. Your cat may not be able to leap in the air to catch a toy anymore, but it can chase it if you drag it across the floor. To that end, use horizontal scratching surfaces instead of vertical ones.
You can also bring out novel household items, such as ribbons and bows for gift wrapping. Always monitor your cats with such toys, though, to ensure they do not swallow a piece.
Brain teasers are another way to keep your aging cat sharp. The simplest brain-teaser toy is a hollow ball filled with treats that get out through small openings when the cat moves the ball.
How to play with a kitten?
If you want a happy and well-behaved pet, you have to help your cat fight boredom and burn off energy. Games are the way to go. They strengthen the human-animal bond and help kittens develop many skills, like coordination, balance, and agility. Through play, young cats also learn how to respect boundaries and become better hunters.
That’s why you should use toys that appeal to your cat’s natural predatory instincts – wand toys with feathers, mice on strings and so on. Kittens love to hide, chase, pounce and climb, so any of these activities will keep your young cat entertained.
Don’t leave your kitty unsupervised with toys that could be shredded and eaten. If the toys have loose pieces, such as bells, strings and googly eyes, put them away after playtime. Hide some of the toys when you’re done anyway, so they retain their novelty.
Cat-proof your home by checking for rubber bands, paper clips, milk-jug rings and anything else that could be swallowed.
Use cat scratching posts to direct unwanted scratching. Kittens have a lot of energy, and you have to give them acceptable outlets to release it. Consider building modular climbing systems, cat shelves or cat trees to encourage movement.
Getting two kittens at once is also a good idea so that they can wrestle. Cats like to play rough – they jump on each other, scratch, and bite, so having a mate will keep your cat entertained. Kittens who don’t have buddies may direct that behavior toward their human.
Teach your cat how to play nicely with you. Young cats can quickly become excited and bite, but that should not be allowed.
What should I do if my cat becomes aggressive during play?
If your cat becomes aggressive during play, stop interacting immediately. Withdrawing attention shows that the behavior is not accepted. Try using a longer toy (without catnip) that will put distance between you and kitty, recommends cat behaviorist Jolene Pelmear, owner of Trainedcat.com.
You can also redirect the cat’s aggression by tossing a stuffed toy that your cat can bite and kick. If the hurtful behavior continues, leave the room.
Pelmear also suggests training your cats. “While playing gives their body exercise, a training session (such as teaching to hop over a jump or stand on hind legs) can focus their mind and make them more manageable,” she explains.
Another important tip is never to use toes and fingers to play. When toes and fingers move rapidly across the cat’s field of vision, they present a suitable target, but that also teaches your kitten that it’s OK to target human flesh. So don’t use your hands! Set the rules and make sure everyone in the family abides because a kitty cannot differentiate between biting an adult and biting a baby.
Don’t punish your pet. When cats play, they incorporate the behaviors they’d normally use as predators in the wild, so they would bite objects that resemble prey. Just take yourself out of the equation and provide toys.
Be patient and make time to play with your cat. In the beginning, try different toys to see what gets your cats excited. Discovering how a cat likes to play is one of the fun parts of welcoming a feline into your family.
How do I pick cat toys?
Research shows that the same qualities that entice cats to hunt also get them to play when it comes to picking cat toys. So, the more a toy resembles a potential victim – like a bug, a bird, or a snake – the more enthusiastic a cat would be. For example, a fluttery, feathery toy that’s shaped like a bird is likely to tempt your kitten, especially if you make it spring and soar like the real thing.
Of course, cats have preferences, so it’s best to offer choices: If your cat ignores feathery toys, try balls. If she dislikes soft toys, try ones wrapped in sisal. You can even try toys with added taste and smell.
Pick toys that are made of attractive materials or combine different textures. Crinkly materials, fur, fleece, or sisal work well and so do toys that make a sound.
The important thing is to match the toy to your cat’s personality. If your kitty likes to pick up its toys, get a smaller item that can be carried around. If you have a timid cat, go for a toy that’s easy to conquer. On the other hand, if your cat is confident and athletic, present something more challenging.
If your cat is overweight or doesn’t play much, try food puzzles to entice. Your cat will have to work to get the treats out. Catnip toys are another option. Keep in mind that while some cats are not attracted to catnip, others may become over-stimulated and even a bit aggressive.
According to cat behaviorist Jolene Pelmear, catnip attraction normally kicks in when a kitten is around six months old. “Cats may start reacting to catnip as early as 3 months old, but it would be uncommon for a kitten any younger to be rolling around with catnip,” she says and adds that a cat will react to the plant less if he or she has frequent exposure to it.
Novelty also matters as cats get bored quickly. Of course, you don’t need to keep a huge arsenal of toys or spend a fortune to have fun with your feline friend. Here are a few ways to have fun at home without toys.
How to play without toys?
You can have a great time with your cat by only using items you already own. Read on for a few ideas that have been tried out!
Balls made of anything crinkly and shiny (like aluminum foil) are sure to get your cat interested. Wadded-up paper works well too. Slide a ball across the floor and get ready to watch your kitty bat and run.
Reflected light on the carpet, walls and ceiling is also intriguing. Use a pocket mirror and soon, your kitty will start to chatter and chase.
Paper bags are great and their rustling sound is a favorite part of the game. You’ll notice that your pet might hide something inside, then pounce on the bag to enjoy the sound. Cats often use paper bags as a hiding spot, too, and you can even make a paper-bag tunnel for more fun.
Toilet-roll tubes are another option. Let your pet swat them as you toss or attach one to string and drag it around the house as you run. Your kitty will race and tumble, trying to catch it.
Feathers from peacocks or other large birds can be used as wand toys. Grab a cushion, entice your cat with the feather under the cushion and watch the animal leap.
Ping-pong balls make a great toy as they are lightweight, bounce easily and move quickly. Throw one against the wall and allow your kitten to chase it. You could also use a sock and even fill it with cotton wool.
Try playing games like hide-and-seek. If your kitty is in the mood to play, it will zoom past you. You could then walk around, pretending to look for it. Make excited noises when you find your cat and watch it hide again.
You’d be surprised how fast cats catch up. Some cats play fetch too – try it with a small, easy-to-carry object like a hair tie or a plastic ring.
Hair ties, bottle caps, plastic milk-jug rings, ribbons and gift-wrap bows are common favorites among felines. These can be as much fun to a kitten as an expensive toy, but you have to be careful with them. Some household items are easy to swallow and can cause serious health problems, so these games should be supervised.
What household items should not be used as toys?
A garlic clove on the hardwood floor may seem like great entertainment to your cat, yet garlic is poisonous to cats. So are onions, scallions, leeks and chives. And while house plants seem fun to smack and chew, they can also pose a threat to your pet’s health.
Leaves, stems, flowers and bulbs can all be toxic. They can cause nausea, drooling, breathing difficulties, gastrointestinal upset, vomiting and diarrhea.
Raisins and grapes can make cats ill as well. Eating even a small portion of grapes, raisins, or currants can cause vomiting and kidney failure. Several other fruits and vegetables can be harmful to cats, so check before you let your cat play with such items.
Be careful with ribbons, strings, yarn or tinsel too, and supervise games with them. Keep these items out of reach when you are away. They are a choking threat and can damage a cat's intestines if swallowed. The same is valid for plastic bags. Cats love to jump on them, but these can be ingested if chewed.
Similar to blister packs: Some common household drugs are very toxic when ingested and while their packaging might seem like a good toy to your kitty, you must keep them away at all times.
Avoid leaving toys with batteries out as well. Cats could get into the batteries, which can be harmful if chewed on or swallowed.
You get the idea. Cats are curious and playful creatures, enriching their environment with the right toys, scratching options, and vertical grounds that will give them plenty to do and keep them out of trouble.
How do I keep my cat entertained when I am away?
To keep your cat entertained when you are away, consider a cat playground (also known as a cat tree, cat condo, cat gym or a kitten playhouse). These types of products usually incorporate toys, hammocks, scratchers, climbing posts, perches, tunnels or caves, which will keep your cat occupied while you are at work or school.
The cat trees and condos are designed to accommodate your pet’s need to climb, jump, scratch and hide, and are essential to keeping an indoor cat happy. Elevated shelves are another option that lets your cat practice its predatory skills. They provide the vertical space needed by your cat to feel amused and safe. Remember that offering vertical space is one of the most important aspects of creating a cat-friendly home.
Cat window perches are also useful. Thanks to them, your pet can study the trees, birds or squirrels outside and feel a part of the outdoors.
Finally, scratching posts are an absolute must because they not only provide an opportunity to fight boredom and work off energy but also help keep your furniture intact.
“Cats need both intellectual and physical stimulation, so offer them a variety of textures to climb on and try to work their brains with treat puzzles,” recommends cat specialist Jolene Pelmear. If you’re willing to spend the extra money, you can try electronic toys that will move on their own to encourage kitty to play while you are away, Pelmear suggests.
When should I play with my cat?
You should always tailor play sessions to your cat’s personality, age and daily rhythm. For example, if your cat wakes you up at night, make time to play before you head to bed. Indoor cats build up energy, which has to be spent, so play for 15-20 minutes in the evening and you’ll both get better sleep.
“If your cat runs to find the noisiest toys, the second your head hits the pillow, start playing with Fluffy before bed-time and don’t stop actively engaging him until he’s ready to settle down!” Pelmear advises.
You could also try giving your pet a catnip toy at bedtime – some cats love self-play before they settle in for the night. Other cats enjoy playing before eating. This copies the natural behavior of cats: the first hunt, then eat. However, if you notice that your cat gets energetic and bouncy after it eats, use this time for a game.
On the other hand, if your cat is most excited when you come home after work, use this period to bond and incorporate a 15-minute play session in your routine. You can make that a nice ritual that will strengthen your bond.
How long should I play with my cat?
Ideally, you would schedule play sessions a few times a day. The experts recommend several 10-minute sessions three-four times daily. Keep in mind, however, that every cat is different. “Most cats will benefit well from multiple short sessions, but you should cater to your cat’s individual needs,” Pelmear agrees.
You can guess how much action your cat needs by its behavior: If your cat is destructive, for example, that’s often because it doesn’t get enough exercise. Kittens definitely need several play sessions a day, while an older cat could be fine with several minutes.
Strive for at least 10 minutes of interactive playtime with your cat, and keep in mind that while your cat may seem depressed, it may be boring, so nudge it by offering different activities. You’d be surprised how playtime can change your pet and what it can do for its emotional and physical health.
When and how should I end a play session with my cat?
When you play with your cat, mimic hunting behavior and, in the end, let your pet make the kill. Simply slow down the action and let the prey get tired so that the cat can catch it. Then, leave your cat with its capture.
If your cat loses interest in the game before that, don’t pressure it to continue; however, keep in mind that cats often lose interest in a toy, so try a different one before giving up. Once the play session is over, put all toys away so your cat doesn’t lose interest. When a toy disappears, it remains appealing.
As mentioned earlier, another reason to keep toys away is to avoid accidents. Make sure your cat doesn’t have unsupervised access to strings, tinsel, plastic bags, rubber bands, milk jug rings, paper clips, and anything else that could be ingested and cause serious issues and even surgery.
Cats are highly intelligent, curious, and active creatures, and to keep them happy we must provide them with plenty of mental and physical stimulation. All felines need to be able to practice the behaviors that make them cats, and games are a great way to let them do that safely.
“Your cat is more likely to stay happy and out of trouble if you safely challenge his senses or make him work for rewards,” cat behaviorist Jolene Pelmear concludes.
According to her, for years, cats have lived in the shadow of dogs, but cats are actually brilliant, adventurous creatures that are capable of far more than eating mice, sleeping on the sofa, and chasing toys.
So give it a try – play with your cat daily! When done regularly, cat play is the best tool for bonding, socializing, and training.
The following infographic explains how to pick a cat toy and play with a cat, kitten or senior cats. Feel free to share it and if you like it.
About the author
Viva Bolova holds a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. She spent 14 years doing work for major brands and writing for various publications. Now she writes on travel and pet-related topics and has experience as a PR expert for an international airport.