Close your eyes and visualize cats. Most likely, many of the images that pop into your mind involve play. You probably envision them playing with others and with their favorite toys — play that includes stalking, pouncing, capturing, and batting objects around.
Cats define toys differently than their people do. Many cat lovers spend a lot of money and many hours searching for the perfect cat toy that they think their kitties will adore. Many times they are disappointed — their cats briefly check out and then ignore the carefully selected toys, opting instead to direct their attentions to bottle tops, pens, or hair ties. Clearly the perceptions differ of what perfect cat toys are.
Here are some pointers to help you choose toys your cats will enjoy, based on how and why they play.
Play is an equal opportunity activity
Although our pampered, well-fed housecats don’t have to hunt for a living like their feral cousins do, they still have the instincts to hunt. These natural instinct emerge in the form of play. Toys are perfect substitutes for prey. Also, because our well cared for housecats don’t spend a major part of their day searching for meals, they have more time for recreational activities.
Playing isn’t just for kittens. Although cats start playing when they’re about three weeks old and continue well into their senior years, their ages are one of the factors that influences how intensely and often they play. Kittens and youngsters are extreme players — chasing, pouncing, and capturing anything or anyone that moves (or doesn’t move). Every waking hour seems to be filled with play. Adults and elderly cats play, but not as intensely or as frequently. It depends on their age, health, and personalities. Some seniors are content to only bat at toys and occasionally chase them.
Play has many functions
Playing is a universal panacea. Dopamine is released into the system when animals play, elevating moods and helping to curtail depression. It reduces stress, mentally stimulates, and is perfect for toning muscles and slimming down. Another great thing about play: It’s intrinsically rewarding. In other words, it feels good to play, no matter how old the cat is.
Play teaches kittens important life lessons — playing hones hunting skills, helps develop coordination and timing, and, when other youngsters get in on the action, it teaches important social skills. Play also facilitates exploration and helps kittens become familiar with their environment. Learning is fun — play teaches life-saving survival skills.
Elderly cats benefit from playing, especially when they play to some degree every day. A play session may last a few seconds or minutes; it may encompass a few well-timed batting movements or chasing objects. Play, along with other physical activities, seems to reverse and slow down the symptoms of dementia.
Playing is mental and physical exercise. The player has to track the toy’s movements with her eyes and make decisions about the best ways to interact with the object.
Find toys your cat will enjoy, no matter her age or physical condition.
Choose the right toy
Keep the end consumer in mind when searching for the perfect cat toy. Ideal toys are those that cats can easily stalk, pounce, bat, grab, scoop, and swat — all movements typically used when hunting.
The size, texture, and weight of the toy can determine whether it will be cat-approved or summarily ignored. As a general rule, cats like toys that are light enough to be batted a distance without much effort. Every cat is unique. Many like playing with soft toys that can be easily grabbed and carried in their mouths. Others enjoy swatting ping-pong type balls or hollow balls that rattle. There are also kitties who love chasing wadded up pieces of paper. Cats like variety. They enjoy different types of toys and interacting with them in a number of ways.
The senses enhance the play experience. Hearing and smell are integral parts of hunting — helping the little hunter locate her meal. Capitalize on this by incorporating the senses into play. Rub a couple of her toys with a favorite treat and occasionally give her catnip-filled toys to play with. Note that not all felines respond to catnip — about one-third of them couldn’t care less about it. Sound can also enhance play. Some kitties react favorably to toys that squeak or rattle when they are pounced on and batted about.
Cats like to have a choice of toys. Always have a diverse range available for to choose from. Your kitty may enjoy playing with a ball and then switch her attentions to a small stuffed animal or a toy that rattles.
In addition to the variety, rotate the playthings out every week so that they aren’t always all available. Being small-prey hunters on the lookout for possible food sources, cats are naturally curious about new objects. Not all toys need to temporarily disappear. Some are favorites — don’t remove them, as doing so can stress cats.
Choose safe toys
Along with searching for toys your cat can relate to, seek out ones that are safe. They need to be large enough that they can’t be swallowed and made of non-toxic materials that can’t be chewed and ingested.
Although toys with little button noses and eyes are cute, they may not be safe. Either remove the small pieces or search for toys that don’t have parts that are easily bitten off. Enterprising cats are very adept at removing and then sometimes ingesting the small parts. Other toys to avoid are those that have sharp edges. Run your fingers over toys and check for jagged, sharp edges and points that can cut soft mouths and lips.
Pass over the cute photo op and hide the balls of yarn and twine from your kitties. These materials are dangerous — they can wrap around vulnerable necks and also be swallowed.
When you are on the hunt for cat toys, consider the end consumer — your cat. Safe toys that she enjoys can be bought or easily made. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, she will choose strange and surprising objects to play with.
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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.
She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.