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Cats Play at All Ages: How to Keep Yours Young at Heart

Kittens, adults, and senior cats show different behavior surrounding play; here's what's normal -- and what indicates a potential problem.

Stacy Hackett  |  Jun 13th 2016


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

Sleeping and eating rank high on the list of my cats’ favorite activities. Also on the
list? Waking me up at 5 a.m. to be fed, acting like they’ve never eaten in their lives, and sleeping in the exact center of the bed. Although most of their energy centers around eating and sleeping, 3-year-old Phillip and 7-year-old Jack continue to enjoy many of the activities they loved as kittens. For example, I regularly find Phillip enthusiastically stalking, batting, and flipping his catnip mice up and down the hall, and Jack can’t resist snatching at my shoelaces when I tie my running shoes.

Chances are your cat frequently acts young at heart, scampering after toys or batting at motes of dust only he can see. Such play behavior is normal, according to Marilyn Krieger, Catster columnist, author, certified cat behavior consultant, and owner of The Cat Coach LLC.

“No matter the age, most cats will play,” she explained. “Although play teaches important survival and social skills, play is also fun.”

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Kittens

Marilyn said play is an important behavior for kittens.

“In addition to learning important survival skills like hunting, play teaches socialization skills and boundaries,” she said. “People can help kittens learn boundaries by never using their hands when playing with them. It’s important that kittens/cats don’t think it’s okay to bite.”

Don’t worry: If your kitten becomes overstimulated during playtime and tries to bite, call a timeout. Simply stop playing, turn your back on her, and leave the room for a few seconds to a minute to give her time to calm down.

“The kitten will soon learn that when she bites or becomes overstimulated, her favorite person will stop giving her the attention she wants,” Marilyn said.

Be concerned: If your kitten isn’t interested in playtime or seems lethargic. Marilyn said such a change in behavior warrants a visit to the veterinarian.

Adults

Play isn’t the only kitten-like behavior my cats display. As he has gotten older, Jack has become friendlier. Instead of running to hide under my bed the moment he hears a strange voice, he seems to have regained some of his kitten-like interest in strangers. Now, he frequently heads to the front door to see who is visiting and will even climb into the laps of new people when they sit on the living room sofa.

Jack displayed this level of curiosity as a kitten, but he seemed to grow more timid as an adolescent and young adult cat. Now in the prime of his adult years, Jack seems to love people as much as he did as a kitten, and he extends this friendly curiosity to new boxes, bags, packages, and parcels — pretty much anything that enters the house.

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Marilyn said cats of all ages are naturally curious: “Depending on the object, cats will check out new items in their environment to determine if they are potential food sources, places to hang out, or things that can be safely interacted with.”

Don’t worry: If your cat is cautious with new people or new things. Some cats take a little longer to warm up to new people and might be more comfortable watching the action from the hallway. Let your cat interact on his own terms.

Be concerned: If your cat suddenly has no interest in people or new items in your house, he might not be feeling well. Abrupt changes in behavior often indicate illness in cats. Schedule a checkup with your vet.

Seniors

Even senior cats occasionally display kitten-like behavior — though probably not as intensely as their younger cousins.

“A play session for an elderly cat might be reaching out and grabbing passing objects and/or pouncing on them,” Marilyn said.

In his later years, my Cornish Rex, Jordan, loved to try to grab a feather toy that we would drag back and forth in front of his favorite napping spot. He’d watch intently, quickly snaking out a paw to stop the feather as it passed. While he couldn’t jump with the acrobatic finesse he’d had as a kitten, he still showed quick reflexes and keen hunting instincts.

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Photo by Shutterstock

Unfortunately, Jordan also regressed in his litter box habits in the last year or so of his life. As I would with a new kitten, I added more litter boxes near the areas Jordan frequented the most, and I made extra efforts to keep them clean and accessible.

Don’t worry: Even if he can’t race around the house at top speed and seems to sleep most of the day, your senior cat most likely still enjoys occasional play sessions that help him feel young — and loved.

Be concerned: Regressing in his litter box habits could simply mean that your cat is getting old — or might mean that your cat is sick. As you would with any changes in your cat’s behavior, take your senior to the vet as soon as possible.

About the author: A lifelong cat owner, Stacy N. Hackett writes about cats, cat breeds, and pet-related topics. A big source of inspiration comes from her two adopted cats: Jack, a 6-year-old red tabby domestic shorthair, and Phillip, a 2-year-old gray-and-white domestic shorthair. Stacy also is “stepmom” to a Cocker Spaniel/Labrador Retriever mix named Maggie as well as two brown tabbies named Katie and Leroy.