Playtime is supposed to be fun and carefree. Who knew there was a right and a wrong way to do it? But there is…at least when it involves playing with a cat!
Play with a cat the right way, and they get in some exercise, bonding time with you, and lots of fun. The wrong way results in a cat that is overstimulated, frustrated, and easily triggered. So learning the dos and don’ts of playing with your cat is important. Let’s start off with the basics.
The Basics When It Comes to Cat Playtime
Cats all have a hunting instinct. Yes, even pampered, pedigreed cats like me. Even though mine is buried pretty deep, and I couldn’t hunt for real to save my life, that instinct does come out with the cat toys.
The best play mimics a cat’s actions when they are in hunting mode. They stalk. They sprint or jump to capture their prey (in your case, a toy). And they keep doing these two things until they make a catch. All three elements — hunt, catch, “kill” — must be there to complete the play cycle. You can’t miss any of these, or your cat’s playtime won’t be as fun or as satisfying as it should be.
As long as you remember the following Dos and Don’ts, your cat will always get the most out of your play sessions with them. I’m starting with the Don’ts
Don’t: Use your hand (or any other body part) as a cat toy
This may be the most important don’t on the list. If you make your hand, foot, or any other body part a toy for your cat to attack and grab, it’s setting a dangerous precedent. You’re telling your cat it’s okay to physically harm you. You are basically teaching your cat to attack you. Yes, really!
Using your hands as playthings is never okay. Especially not when you have a kitten. Sure, their tiny teeth and claws won’t hurt you (much), but you are training that cute little impressionable thing in a very bad way. That kitten could grow up to be a cat that attacks your ankle, all teeth and claws out, shreds your hand, and may possibly send you to the hospital with an infection from wounding you.
If your cat likes wrestling and attacking things, give them a stuffed toy or a kicker to beat up, not a body part.
Don’t: Keep playing with your cat if they are showing signs of aggression
This is more likely to happen if you are using your hands for play, but it could happen at other times too. If your cat goes from playful to a threatening stance — clues like ears all the way back, teeth bared, tail thrashing, or skin twitching — they’re overstimulated and may attack. A cat that exhibits this behavior and lunges after you is not playing anymore.
If your cat is showing aggression during playtime, the best thing to do is to stop engaging with them immediately, and leave them alone to calm down. Overstimulated cats need a time out. Any other attempts on your part to soothe or calm them down could possibly make things worse.
Don’t: End your play sessions abruptly
With the exception of the aggressive behavior above, never end a play session just because you’re bored or you want to do something else. Play must have all the hunt-catch-kill elements, or your cat will be frustrated and unsatisfied. This is why laser pointers can be problematic — the red dot can’t be caught, so there’s no clear payoff.
There are two ways to end a play session in a way that satisfies your cat. Either let them catch the toy and enjoy it for a few minutes before taking it and praising them. Or you can end it by giving them a treat, so it’s kind of like they’re enjoying the benefits of the kill (in fact, this is the best way to end a laser pointer session). If you can do both — let them catch the toy one final time, praise them and give them a treat — that’s even better.
Don’t: Let your cat play with interactive toys unsupervised
Interactive toys — wand or fishing style toys with their string, wires, and moving parts — can pose a danger to your cat. They can chew things up, eat string or get tangled in wire. Always put them away between play sessions, in a drawer or cupboard your cat can’t break into.
Those were the Don’ts. Here are the Dos
Do: Schedule regular playtimes with your cat
Routines make a cat feel safe and secure, and they’ll be overjoyed if you have scheduled playtimes with them. Create a little ritual on top of the routine to make it even better.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever play with your cat spontaneously! That’s fun too, and is a nice addition to the scheduled playtimes.
Do: Learn what your cat’s play preferences are
Some cats enjoy tossing around small mice toys or crinkle balls. Some cats prefer to chase after toys flying through the air. Other cats like to stalk larger toys or wrestle with kickers. Some like puzzle toys. Some like catnip toys, some don’t. There are those cats who prefer to be close to the ground, while others like climbing up to higher levels. Some cats prefer no cat toys at all, just boxes and wadded up paper.
Every cat is different when it comes to play. Learn what your cat’s preferences are and double down on their favorite items and playing styles.
Do: Think like prey
Usually it’s best to think like a cat when you are interacting with your kitty. But when you’ve got a toy, you need to turn it around and be like the thing they are stalking. What would a mouse or a bird do if they were being stalked by a cat? Try to avoid them, of course. Prey never runs toward a cat. They will try to hide from them, dash past them, or fly away from them. The more prey like you can make the toy, the more your cat will enjoy the game.
Do: Regularly inspect toys and playthings to make sure they are still safe
If your cat plays rough, their toys are bound to start coming apart at some point. So take the time to look at their toys and see if there are any loose strings, stuffing coming out, pieces that might get swallowed, etc. Also check your cat trees. Even the gentlest cat will do damage to them over time, and you want to remove any loose staples or trim any strings or edges that are tearing away from the pole. Safety is important!
Do: Be creative
You don’t have to just toss toys around or wave an interactive toy through the air (although both are fun!). Combine waving or tossing a toy with a box or cat tent, and it’s even more fun! Or toss crunchy treats across the room for your cat to chase. Play hide and seek with a wand toy and bed sheets or crinkle paper. You are only limited by your, and your cat’s imagination.
I hope this has sparked some fun ideas, and helped you and your cat have more satisfying, and safer fun! How do you play with your cat? Let me know in the comments.
Here are some more things you want to know about cat play:
- How to Choose the Right Toy for Your Cat
- Does Your Cat Play Too Rough? Here’s Why, and How to Fix It
- Are Your Cats Bored of Their Toys? Try These Tips!