Cats playing is so important to cats but so overlooked by kitty parents nowadays. With busy schedules and limited time, finding ways to keep your cat engaged and happy can be challenging, but the playtime sessions are crucial to the cat's overall well-being. Regular play help to keep the cat physically active, mentally stimulated, and emotionally satisfied.
“Playing with the cat strengthens the human-cat bond and encourages a healthy body condition while reducing unwanted behaviors,” explains Jolene Pelmear, a cat behaviorist and para veterinarian with years of experience in an animal hospital.
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 about playing with cats. Here's what we'll cover:
Why should we play with the cats?
Playing with your cat is very important for several reasons. It helps your cat release built-up energy and prevents undesirable habits, such as picking fights with other pets or scratching the sofa.
Moving also helps cats maintain a healthy weight and keeps muscles and joints strong, which can help them live longer. On top of this, cats playing keeps the animal’s mind active and alert. Our feline friends are intelligent creatures and need mental stimulation.
Playing with the cat helps lower stress levels for kitties and humans as well. 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-parent complaints can be fixed by regular, active playtimes and an enriched environment,” Pelmear points out.
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 Persian cats.
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 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 cats 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, play with each separately. Have a toy for each kitty or you’d risk having one cat intimidate another. Another option is to play with one kitty 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, roll, 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 catch. Games involving virtual prey can frustrate 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 with your cat. If it walks away, take a break. Like anything, moderation is key and each feline's 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: 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 to ensure they do not swallow a piece.
How to play with kittens?
If you want a happy and well-behaved pet, you must help your furry friend fight boredom and burn off energy. Games are the way to go. They strengthen the human-animal bond and help kittens develop 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 entertain your young cat.
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 toys when you’re done, 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 must give them acceptable outlets to release it.
Getting two kittens at once is also a good idea so that they can wrestle. Cats like to play rough – jumping on each other, scratching, and biting, so having a mate will keep your cat entertained. Kittens who don’t have buddies may direct that behavior toward their humans.
Teach your cat how to play nicely with you. Young cats can quickly become excited and bite, but that should not be allowed.
How to 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 will be. For example, a fluttery, feathery toy 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, as do toys that make a sound.
If your cat is overweight or doesn’t play much, try food puzzles to entice her. Your cat will have to work to get the treats out. Catnip toys are another option. Remember 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 occurs 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.
Playing with cats without toys
You can have a great playtime with your cat using only your own items. Read on for a few ideas that have been tried out!
Balls made of anything crinkly and shiny (like aluminum foil) will surely interest your cat. Wadded-up paper works well too. Slide a ball across the floor and get ready to watch your kitty bat and run.
The reflected light on the carpet, walls, and ceiling is also intriguing. Use a pocket mirror, and soon, your kitty will start chatting and chasing.
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 a 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.
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 must 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.
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.
How to 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 your cat needs to feel amused and safe. Remember that offering vertical space is one of the most important aspects of creating a cat-friendly home.
The cat window perches are also helpful. Thanks to them, your pet can study the trees, birds or squirrels outside and feel a part of the outdoors.
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: they 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 into your routine. You can make that a nice ritual that will strengthen your bond.
How often and 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. But, the frequency and duration of playtime sessions depend on various factors, such as your cat's age, energy level, and individual preferences. Here are some guidelines to help you determine the ideal playtime routine for your cat:.
1. Kittens: They have boundless energy and require frequent daily play sessions. Aim for three to four short play sessions (10-15 minutes each) spread out evenly during the day. Interactive play with toys encouraging chasing, pouncing, and swatting are ideal for kittens.
2. Adult cats: They generally require at least two play sessions daily. The sessions can range from 15 to 30 minutes each. Interactive play with wand toys or laser pointers can provide the mental and physical stimulation they need. It's important to schedule playtime before meals to mimic the natural hunting sequence.
3. Senior cats: Older cats may have reduced energy levels but still benefit from regular play sessions. Adjust the duration and intensity of playtime to accommodate their needs. Shorter play sessions of 10-15 minutes, a couple of times a day, can help keep them mentally and physically active.You can guess how long you should play with a cat by her/his behavior: If your cat is destructive, for example, that’s often because it doesn’t get enough exercise. Once you find right formula, you would be surprised how playing can change your pet and what it can do for its emotional and physical health.
What should I do if my cat becomes aggressive during play?
If your cat becomes aggressive while you play with her/him, 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 the 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 feline friends. 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.
When and how should I end a play session with my cat?
When playing with the 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, remember 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, avoiding accidents is another reason to keep toys away. Ensure 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 with the kitties are a great way to let them do that safely.
So give it a try – play with your cat daily! Cat play is the best tool for bonding, socializing, and training when done regularly.
The following infographic explains how to pick a cat toy and play with a cat, kitten, or senior cat. Feel free to share 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.