Cat Play Behavior: Researching Fun

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley November 03, 2018

Play is a behavior displayed in many different animals, including humans, and of course, cats! It is often considered a positive behavior because, typically, animals will only play under good conditions and when they are feeling well, such as when they are well fed, healthy, and free of threats from predators (Held & Špinka, 2011). Play is often defined as a behavior that is not needed for survival, is different from adult behaviors such as hunting or defense, is repeated over and over, is rewarding to the animal, and is performed when the animal is relaxed (Held & Špinka, 2011). There are three types of play that animals engage in including social play, object play, and locomotor-rotational play (Held & Špinka, 2011; Ahloy-Dallaire et al., 2018).

Why Do Cats Play?

Play occurs most frequently in young animals, but older animals, particularly our pet animals such as cats, are known to play at all ages. When animals are young, it has been suggested that play is a form of training that helps the animals practice behaviors they will need later in life (Held & Špinka, 2011). In cats, for example, play is often in the form of stalking and ambushing toys (or human feet!) and play wrestling with other cats. These behaviors could be preparing them for more serious adult behaviors, allowing them to hunt and fight to obtain resources in the future. It has also been suggested that play may act as a way for the animal to assess its current abilities, test its environment, and the competition of their companions in real time (Held & Špinka, 2011). Play is also thought to promote positive emotions in humans and animals, so the animal may play because it feels good and to make itself feel better (Held & Špinka, 2011; Ahloy-Dallaire et al., 2018). Play is a contagious behavior. If one animal in a social group is playing it will often stimulate others to play (Held & Špinka, 2011). For humans, seeing animals play often makes us feel good and become more playful ourselves. Many of us actively engage in play with our animals, which is great for everyone involved!

Why Is Play Important?

Play is an important behavior to elicit in our indoor cats, even our adult cats. It is well understood that kittens are very playful and will often find ways to entertain themselves, but sometimes that can get them into trouble. And even though we often think our older cats are lazy, many of them still have a desire to play. Encouraging different forms of play in cats is a form of environmental enrichment. Enrichment is providing modifications to an animal’s environment that provide some benefit, whether it be mental or physical stimulation (Strickler & Shull, 2014). Enrichment is important in preventing boredom and stress in all captive animals, including pet animals like cats. Cats maintain many behaviors of their wild and feral counterparts, but when they are kept indoors they are unable to display many of these behaviors. This can lead to pent up energy, frustration, and stress, which in turn can lead to inappropriate behaviors that make cats more likely to be relinquished to animal shelters (Strickler & Shull, 2014).

How Should I Keep My Cat Entertained With Toys?

Cat owners may think their cat is not interested in playing because they never see them interacting with the toys provided to them. This is often because cats have grown bored of their toys. There are a wide variety of toys available for our feline friends. Some of the most popular toys reported by cat owners are furry mice, any toys with catnip, balls, string toys, fishing pole toys, feathers, boxes, and paper bags (Strickler & Shull, 2014). In order to keep your cat interested in the toys and provide some variety to their environment (another way to add enrichment!), it is recommended to rotate toys and to regularly add in new toys (Herron & Buffington, 2010). Cats will get bored of toys they see all the time, and the presence of new toy items can help encourage them to play more. At any given time, provide your cat a handful of toys in a variety of types, textures, and purposes. Make note of your cat’s favorite toys, but also introduce new toys for them to experiment with. Keep the rest of the toys hidden away in a closet where your cat cannot find them. At least once a week rotate the toys. Every month or two, buy your cat a new toy. This will help maintain your cat’s interest in the toys and encourage them to play more.

How Should I Play With My Cat?

Another reason cat owners rarely see their cats play is because they expect their cat to play alone, but cats would much rather have you play with them. It is recommended for cat owners to play with their cats twice a day for 15-30 minute sessions. This helps the cat burn off some energy and practice some very important species-specific behaviors (Strickler & Shull, 2014). In the wild, cats will spend about 14% of their day hunting. They typically have short bursts of energy that centers on finding, catching, killing, and eating prey. These energy bursts usually last for about 30 minutes (Herron & Buffington, 2010; Strickler & Shull, 2014). To have an effective play session, mimic this behavior sequence. To best mimic this, plan your play sessions around mealtime. Find a toy your cat really likes and encourage them to play with you. Fishing pole type toys work great for this type of play as it allows you to move the toy similarly to how a prey item would move, stimulating your cat to hunt and catch the item. Spend about 15-30 minutes letting your cat stalk, ambush, and pounce for the toy (Strickler & Shull, 2014). Eventually let them catch and “kill” the toy. Soon after that provide your cat a meal. After eating, cats will likely groom themselves and then head off to nap (Bernstein & Friedmann, 2013). These play sessions are great for burning off energy in your cat, letting them practice natural behaviors, and spending some quality time building a positive relationship with them. Also, setting up a play schedule will help redirect any problem behaviors your cat is showing to constructive play behavior with you (Strickler & Shull, 2018).

To effectively play with your cat, think about how mice, rats, and birds move around and try to mimic those behaviors with the toys. Some cats really enjoy it if you throw or roll toys across the floor, as this encourages them to chase and pounce. If you have a fishing pole type toy or wiggle wand with a toy at the end of it, you can use it to mimic a bird flying in the sky then landing on the ground and flying back up (Horwitz & Landsberg, 2013). Try to get the toy at the end of the wand to make noise while you do this by moving it quickly and erratically. You can drag toys behind you as you walk, varying the pace at which you move (Horwitz & Landsberg, 2013). Some cats really enjoy it if you move the toy very slowly then suddenly make it “run” away from them, while other cats might prefer it when the toy disappears around a corner or anywhere else so that they can run and ambush the toy. One may incorporate play and eating behavior by tossing kibble or treats across the floor. This encourages the cat to hunt and catch the “prey”, and then allows them to eat when they succeed completing the behavior sequence. Many cats love this game, and it is a great way to provide mental and physical stimulation while making meal times fun and exciting.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of A Laser Pointer As A Toy?

Laser pointers are popular toys with cats but there is some debate between veterinarians and behaviorists over the effectiveness of these toys. They are great at encouraging cats to play, but there is a key piece of the behavior sequence missing when playing with lasers – and that is that the cat never gets to catch the prey. This can be frustrating for the cat. If you want to use a laser pointer to play with your cat, be sure to provide something for them to “kill” at the end of the play bout (Ellis, 2009; Herron & Buffington, 2010). For example, you can throw a different toy in the line of the laser to allow the cat to catch and “kill” the prey. Or you can start the play bout with the laser and then switch to a different toy that has a tangible prey item to catch. There are also risks with laser pointers with harming your cat’s eyes, so be careful not to point the laser directly at the cat’s face and to beware of reflective surfaces that could cause the laser to bounce off into your cat’s eyes.

Should I Use My Hands And Feet To Play With My Cat?

It is not recommended to use your hands or feet to play with your cat, either by moving your hand to mimic a prey item to encourage them to “hunt” your hand, or to roughhouse with your cat. It might be cute and fun when the cat is young, but many cat owners will use their hands and play rough with their young kittens, and then have issues when the cat grows older. The older cat will continue to view your hand as a play toy and be quick to bite and grab at them with their paws (Herron & Buffington, 2010; Horwitz & Landsberg, 2013). This can be painful and dangerous, as cat mouths and claws contain bacteria that can cause infections on human skin (Turner, 2017). Always encourage your kitten to play with appropriate toys and objects, and gently redirect them from chasing hands, feet, or objects in your house you do not want them to destroy (Heron & Buffington, 2010; Horwitz & Landsberg, 2013).

Can My Cat Play Fetch?

Playing fetch with a dog is a great interactive game that can really help tire a dog out so many cat owners wonder if their cat can play fetch. The answer is, of course, that it depends on the individual cat. Cats can be taught to play fetch, but some cats may never be interested enough in this game to learn (Lindell, 2008). Some cats naturally chase toys and then carry the toy around in their mouth. Some cats also naturally bring you their killed prey item. Previously, it was thought that if a cat brought you a prey item, it was their way of showing affection to you and giving you a gift. Now it is believed that it is still a form of affection, but this may be their way of trying to teach us how to hunt or provide us food, as if we do not know how to care for ourselves (Springer, 2007). Either way, you should take it as a compliment if your cat drops a mouse at your feet or in your bed... right? If you have a cat that likes to carry prey around and likes to bring it to you, then teaching fetch will be easy! Many cats instinctively chase toys when we throw them, so toss the toy for your cat, and then use an excited, playful voice to encourage them to bring the toy back to you. When they do, toss it again and continue the game until your cat is tired. It may take some time for your cat to understand the game, but many cats do learn that fetch is a fun game, and by using principles of positive reinforcement, such as providing praise or treats whenever your cat fetches, owners can easily teach their cat this game (Lindell, 2008).

 Should I Setup Cat Play Dates?

It is fairly common with dogs to set up dog play dates or to bring your dog to daycare to allow them to play with other dogs all day. Setting up cat play dates is not nearly as common. Kittens will engage in play behavior with their littermates starting around 4 week of age and will continue to do so until about 3 months old at which time they begin to engage in more object play (Bateson, 2013). The ancestor of domestic cats, the North African Wildcat, was a solitary species. As cats began to live alongside humans who were providing them food, domestic cats began to live in larger groups and developing intricate social structures in order to allocate resources. However, even though cats will cluster and interact in social groups in order to obtain resources, they are not communal hunters like dogs and do not form social hierarchies (Herron & Buffington, 2010). So while they may display some social behavior, they are not as closely bonded to other cats and do not display the same sorts of social behaviors and play as dogs do. Studies on feral groups of cats have shown that cats tend to interact more closely with cats they are related to (Herron & Buffington, 2010; Turner, 2013). In general, cats are tolerant of other cats in their household. Some unrelated cats who share a household do form close bonds and will be seen grooming and sleeping with one another and will even engage in social play. However, cats appear to be more selective about the company they keep and show preferences for certain companions over others (Bateson, 2013). Cats also tend to take longer to establish relationships with unrelated cats, unlike dogs who can often make fast friends. The longer unfamiliar cats live together, the less likely they are to have aggressive interactions, making it more likely play will occur as the cats continue to build a relationship (Barry & Crowell-Davis, 1999). For these reasons, having play dates with cats is not likely to be successful as cats take a while to warm up to new places, people, and other cats. To encourage social play, it is best to adopt littermates or already bonded cats, or to give your cats plenty of time to get to know each other while promoting positive interactions between them.

Play is an important and fun activity to engage in with our cats. Play gives cats environmental enrichment in the form of mental and physical stimulation. While many cats will engage in play alone, many prefer to have you play with them so be sure to incorporate play into your daily routine with your cat. Play is important in engaging your cat in species-specific behaviors, redirecting these behaviors to appropriate items, and helping them burn off energy to help prevent any behavioral issues that can stem from boredom or stress. Cats are rather selective about the companions they keep.  While some cats will engage in social play with other cats they have a good relationship with, cat play dates are usually not a good idea. Each cat is unique, so it is important to learn your cat’s favorite play style and toys to provide them the best environment to have fun. Happy playing!

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Works Cited

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