Cats are getting fatter. About 1 in 5 cats were obese 25 years ago. Now that number is almost 1 in 3. While they’ve gotten safer in the last 20 years, the typical indoor cat is bored, overweight and at risk for disease and early death.
Most dog owners know they need to walk their dogs daily. We cat guardians also need to build in daily play sessions to keep our cats healthy.
Play therapy can give cats the best of both worlds, a safe cat that is healthy mentally and physically. It’s also a fun way to strengthen the bond with your cats.
Plus play relieves boredom, improves circulation, prevents disease, builds muscle tone and can prevent or reduce behaviors that are undesirable.
Your cat’s natural instinct to hunt for prey can be turned into playtime. A good play therapy session should include:
• A cue to initiate the session
• 7-10 minutes of active play
• Limited distractions from other humans or animals
• Using a toy, not your hands or feet
• Using the toy to simulate the movements of prey
• Safe surfaces for the cat to jump, run and land
• Letting the cat catch the toy near the end of the session
• Feeding a healthy protein treat to complete the hunting sequence and end the session
• Hiding the toy when you’re finished and rotating hidden toys
Your cat will probably get bored quickly with any toy that just sits there. Who wouldn’t? Your best investment is a toy that has you on the other end of it, making playtime a partnership full of surprises. The more you play with your cat, the more your cat will want to play.
You can make your own cat toys from common materials or buy commercial ones that appeal to your cat. Experiment with different motions that imitate the movements that attract cats in nature.
You might have a cat who likes bird motions with fluttering, swooping air dynamics or you might find that scurrying a toy across the floor and hiding under furniture excites the cat’s hunting/playing instincts. Some cats like lots of rapid motion; others will be intimidated by so much activity.
WAND TOYSCat Catcher, Cat Dancer, Da Bird, fishing pole designs, peacock feathers, string-on-a-stick
The idea is to find or make something that allows you to excite your cat’s hunting instincts when you wave, flutter, twitch, or circle the toy. You can get big movements and keep your hands away from the hunting cat.
If your cat isn’t going after a string toy, try snipping off the toy on the end, leaving the string. Almost all cats love a string.
Remember to put the wand away out of sight after playtime. This will keep the cat excited about the play sessions. It also keeps you a critical part of the sessions and builds your relationship. Check toys for loose parts that might be harmful if swallowed and replace as needed.
wadded-up paper, Mylar crinkle, ping-pongs, sponges, felted balls, large pom-poms
The movement of a ball along the floor mimics the scampering of small prey animals. Many cats like to bat, kick, bite, drop, and carry these toys. You can increase the attraction with balls that have bells, treats or catnip inside to stimulate the play. Some cats will learn to bounce the balls into a basket, play soccer in the tub or play fetch with you and the ball. These toys should also be rotated to keep them interesting.
Watch the signals
Play at your cat’s pace and watch the body language so you don’t overexcite the cat. If a cat gets too worked up he or she could redirect their energy towards your hands or feet or another cat. Encourage play but be ready to take a break if things get too wild.
Don’t use your hands
If you use your hands to play with your cat you are teaching them to treat you as prey, so scratches and bites are likely to occur. You may think you can control the level of excitement but it is unfair to ask your cat to know the difference between play and affection.
You could be putting yourself, your cat and other humans at risk by teaching them to “attack” hands. Many cats end up in shelters because they were encouraged as kittens to bite hands or feet.
Pick a good time
Try to schedule playtime with your cat both in the morning and evening to find out when your cat is most receptive. If your play sessions are before mealtimes you mimic the natural prey sequence. Cats like routine so a play session each evening before meals will satisfy your cat’s natural drive to hunt and eat.
Careful with laser lights
Avoid using laser lights alone for play sessions, since many cats become frustrated or obsessed with chasing a light that they can’t ever catch. If you use a laser then transition to a toy or food that the cat can catch and bite to complete the natural prey drive.
One cat at a time
If you have more than one cat, try to play with them separately. If two excited cats are chasing a toy they could accidentally crash into each other and get hurt or frightened by the other cat. You might have to take the game into a room with one cat and close the door or keep two cats entertained with two separate toys (good exercise for humans too!).
No small or loose parts
Do check all toys for loose parts that might be harmful if swallowed and replace as needed. Swallowing string or other small parts can be very damaging or even fatal to cats.