As a cat behaviourist, if I was restricted to one thing I could tell indoor-cat guardians, I would tell them to play with their cat!
It is simply one of the most important things cat owners can do for their animal.
Let’s look at a cat in her natural environment (outside). Some studies show that cats hunt anywhere between twenty to thirty times a day (and probably catch prey for up to ten of those). This naturally depletes a lot of energy. The physical and mental stimulation of hunting is huge, and many of a cat’s physical characteristics are highly tuned for this one activity!
To put it frankly, your cute fluffy little housecat is a highly-effective, deadly predator under the hood!
This hunting instinct is genetically encoded. From a very young age, kittens partake in play fighting, designed to hone their hunting, fighting and coordination skills. Even adult cats play fight given the opportunity.
Now consider that an indoor cat never needs to hunt or chase their prey. To get food, they merely need to mosey on over to their bowl (if they are free-fed), or wait for certain times of the day (if they are meal-fed).
This just doesn’t quite mesh with their natural genetic activity requirements.
This activity mismatch is a huge contributor to many of the problem behaviours seen today. A lack of natural activity can manifest itself in a number of ways, depending on the cat. This boredom and lack of mental and physical stimulation is a form of stress for an animal, and can result in boredom and stress-related behaviours such as aggression, territoriality, destruction, annoying and attention seeing behaviours, anxiety, and the list goes on.
This is so important, I can’t say it enough – a cat needs daily activity and stimulation for their own sanity and behavioural maturity.
So how do we meet this activity requirement for our companion animals? This simple answer, again, is… play with your cat!
If you own a dog, you’ll know that to be a responsible dog owner, you need to walk your dog (or perform some other physical activity) daily. Think of playing with your cat the same as walking your dog.
Many cat owners will tell me that they do try and play with their cat, but their cat is just not interested! This is common, and it just means you aren’t getting your cat’s motor running with your play technique.
To play properly we need to consider three things:
Your cat will probably tell you when their best times are, according to their energy level. If they are latching on to your ankles or swiping things off the counter every afternoon at 6pm, this is definitely the time! Generally, cats’ activity cycles coincide with the activity in the house, so normally the best times are: in the morning before work, getting home in the afternoon, or after dinner/before bed. I will make special mention here that before bed is an important one for cats who are prone to the 3am zoomies, where it appears they are possessed and run around the house like a something possessed!
Don’t worry – they aren’t possessed. They are just blowing off pent up energy!
If you meal-feed your cat (rather than free-feed), the absolute best times will be before meals, as this matches up with their evolutionary hunting process. First they hunt (play), then they eat.
Ideally you should play with your cat at least once or twice a day. Some younger, more energetic cats may need three to four times.
How to play is very important, and will be the biggest contributor to how much energy your cat gives the play session.
In its most basic sense, you need the toy to act like prey, and in a way that matches what your cat would do outside.
If you’ve ever watched a cat stalk a prey item, you may have noticed that they generally perform in an order of events.
First, they stare at the prey item. Then they might get down low and start stalking towards it. This is then followed by the sprint once they prey in running distance, then finally the pounce. At this point, she may even release her prey for another round (or four). Cats love the chase, and it provides huge amounts of mental and physical stimulation and strategising. During this sequence you may see other things like the bum-wiggle, and when then cat is finally ready to end it, the kill bite, which is usually performed by rolling on her side, biting the neck of her prey, and kicking with her back legs to disembowel it.
This is the general sequence, though some steps are done quickly, and you may even see her go straight for the sprint or stalk as soon as she sees something that catches her eye.
To play with your cat effectively, you need to replicate the hunt.
If you’re pretending to be a ground-dwelling prey item like a lizard, you’ll need to make it scurry from under the couch, to behind the bench. Then from there to under the table. Do what a lizard would do.
Don’t wave the toy in the cat’s face – prey would never do this in the wild. Remember, you need to have the item run away from, not towards your cat!
If your prey item is a bird, then make it fly around the lounge room before finally settling on top of the couch. Let your cat stalk it and then pretend that the prey has seen the cat and make it fly away onto the other couch.
A few times throughout the session let your cat catch or grab the toy. This will keep her interested. If she can never catch it, she will get bored quickly.
Playtime should go for as long as your cat needs to get worn out. It could be 5 minutes or 20 minutes depending on the cat.
Fishing rod toys are the best for human-cat play. These are simply a stick with a string at the end which has a toy attached.
Cats have preferences, so you may need to test a couple first. Some cats like feathery, flying things, others like the lizard-looking things. I even had a cat who went crazy for just the swivel (which connected the toy to the string). Something about the size and the sound it made on the tiles!
Whatever type you use, make sure that you are pretending to be that toy when you play. For example, don’t make a lizard toy fly around the room!
Change up the toys if you can. Using the same one every day might get boring quickly for your cat.
And lastly, change up the locations as well. This helps maintain novelty, which helps with keeping cats interested.
To really highlight the importance of play, I’m going to say it again. Play with your cat! It is so important, that I can honestly say that I discuss it with clients in every single consultation. And many end up contacting me to tell me how it’s changed their fur baby for the better!
Here’s to happy cats!