Play time is critical for a cat’s wellbeing. Play provides physical and mental stimulation, teaches them important skills, prevents behavioral problems, helps adopted cats bond to a new family, and helps shy cats come out of their shells. There’s actually a lot of important stuff going on while your cat is having fun!

The average adult cat needs about 30 minutes of play time daily. This can be broken into several short sessions instead of one long bout of play. At least half of this time should be interactive play with a person. Kittens will generally play for 45-60 minutes a day, and 5-10 minute increments are best for the little ones.

Play behavior in cats
In the wild, play is primarily reserved for young cats to learn how to hunt, but domestic cats continue to play throughout their lives, even into their golden years. 

When they play, cats often mimic hunting behavior by crouching down with their hind end slightly raised, wiggling their butt, and then pouncing on their “prey”. Cats will grab their prey, bite it, wrestle it to the floor and kick it with their hind feet. 

Choosing the right toys for your cat
Because play has its roots in hunting, your cat is likely to be most engaged by toys that mimic prey. Before you pick out toys for your cat, observe their behavior and see what catches their eye. Then choose toys that mimic the movement of that which intrigues them most. 

If your cat likes to sit on the window sill and watch the birds outside, try out a toy that mimics bird-like movements, such as Da Bird. 

If your cat’s eye is immediately caught by a fly or spider, the Cat Dancer, Fly Toy, or laser pointer may be a favorite. 

Other excellent, all-purpose toys that we recommend include the Kong® Kickeroo™ and Cat Charmer. 

Do Not use your hands, feet, and shoestrings as toys. Doing so may lead to biting or destructive chewing behaviors. 

How to play with your cat
Move the toy as if it were prey, and your cat will be more interested. 

  • Mimicking birds:  circle and flutter back and forth quickly, while occasionally dipping down and then rising and sometimes taking a break on a “branch” (e.g. top of a bookshelf or table).
  • Mimicking ground-dwelling prey, such as a mouse or insect: scurry the toy across the floor quickly, then slowly, and should hide behind or under furniture.

Remember that prey rarely moves towards its predator, so move the toy back and forth in front of or away from your cat, but never directly at your cat. Allow your cat to strategize, stalk, and pounce. Always end with your cat being successful and catching the “prey.”

Rotate through a selection of toys to keep your cat’s interest. For instance, on Monday put out a ping pong ball and catnip fish. On Wednesday, replace the fish with a Kong® Straw Cone. Put away the ping pong ball on Thursday and scatter a few straws around the house. When your cat only has access to a particular toy every couple of weeks it will seem brand new each time.

Playing with a shy or lazy cat
Don’t discount the value of play for shy or “lazy” cats. Even if the cat isn’t chasing, jumping or otherwise very physically engaged, the mental part of play is beneficial. Keep at it, especially if this is a cat who is new to you. In a few weeks, your cat may be running all over the place in order to catch the toy.

A word about laser pointers: Many cats enjoy them, and they can expend a lot of energy trying to chase them. However, you don’t want to end up frustrating your cat because he is never able to catch anything. End any play session using a laser with a few minutes of play with a toy that your cat can “catch.”

If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Society Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email help@anticruelty.org.

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