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How to Best Play With Your Cat

Timing, safety, type of toy, and getting to know your cat as an individual all play a part.

Catherine Holm  |  Feb 26th 2016


Play is an important aspect of your cat’s life that you might overlook. Especially if your cat enjoys an indoor-only existence, he or she will not only benefit from the exercise that play brings but also from the the way play can imitate hunting.

Do you spend enough time playing with your cat ? Marilyn Krieger, author of Naughty No More! and the Ask a Behaviorist column for Catster, suggests daily play sessions for your cat. If your cat is a high energy feline, consider multiple play sessions per day; if your cat is calmer, two sessions per day are good. Krieger also suggests scheduling play sessions for the morning and the evening, when cats are most active.

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Boy playing with cat by Shutterstock

Krieger says play is important for all cats, whether they live indoors 24/7, are indoor/outdoor, or outdoor only. “Playing helps keep them from becoming bored (and couch potatoes) and is mentally and physically stimulating,” she said.

Krieger points out that cats are little predators.

“Play, when done correctly, mimics hunting — dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released when cats play (and when they hunt). Whether the cat is indoors 24/7 or outdoors, playing also can help socialize cats and build and strengthen bonds between cats and people.”

So play is quite important for the physical and mental well being of your cat. Here are some thoughts on how to make the most of playing with your cat.

Use your imagination

We’ve been led to believe that we have to buy every solution to every problem, but you can make your own cat toys. Some of the best cat toys are (safe) improvisations that you can create right at home, with materials on hand. See the recent Catster article, 6 Ways to Entertain Your Cat on the Cheap, for fun ideas. Commenters had some wonderful new ideas as well. There is no need for your cat to be bored in your home.

Use safe toys

Safety is paramount. In some cases, you’ll use simple common sense, but it never hurts to be reminded. The Feline Fisher, for example, is a wonderful toy and one of my cats’ favorites. It’s a long string on a light weight fishing-type pole, with a slightly weighted item on the end that cats love to chase. The Feline Fisher is delivered in a tight tube, and that is a good thing. Put this toy away when done playing, or your cat could accidentally strangle himself or get caught in the string.

Other things might not be as obvious but will depend upon you using your head and knowing your cat. If your cat has a small toy mouse, for example, and the cat has chewed the toy open, don’t let the cat ingest any of the stuffing. (Get rid of the toy and replace it with something sturdier, or fix it if you can be sure that your cat won’t ingest something else bad — thread? glue? — as a result of your repairs.) Watch out for feathers that might shed from some of the cheaper feather toys, and pick them up before they get swallowed. Watch out for buried staples in certain cat scratchers, for example — these could snag a cat’s claw and cause painful injury.

I worry a lot, and I try to think of all this before something bad happens. But the best toys are well designed by folks that understand why we want to avoid dangers in the first place.

Homemade toys? The foil ball is a lovely toy for example, but pick it up and get rid of it when done — you don’t want a cat ingesting foil, and you don’t want to encourage that by using dirty foil.

Make the toy act like prey

Krieger talks about this in Naughty No More. The toy should move randomly and quickly, and it should be dragged away from the cat. (Imagine a mouse darting — it moves away from the cat and it moves erratically, not rhythmically.) This will satisfy your cat’s hunting instincts. Again, the Feline Fisher is one of my favorite toys. It does move like prey and my cats go crazy the moment I take it out of the container. I’ve invested a few dollars in cheaper versions of wand toys, but they don’t have near the same effect as the Fisher — because they’re improperly designed and they don’t mimic the movement of prey.

Individualize play

You can do everything right (pick safe toys, anticipate and prevent dangers, play with your cats regularly, make the toys imitate prey), and you might still have the outlier cat. This means you need to know your cat. Here are some examples:

Rama, my black kitty, loves to play but plays best alone. I’m not sure whether he simply wants my exclusive attention or playing in a room with the other cats makes him feel exposed. It took some years of observation and getting to know Rama to figure this out. I keep a very special toy hidden in one room, tempt him in, and close the door, after which we toss the toy and play. He throws himself into it in a way that he will not do in front of other cats.

Health issues might affect play in a number of ways. Over time I came to realize (and had diagnosed) that Kieran had arthritis in his hips. Kieran will play, but what works best for him is a wand toy like a Fisher, one he can bat at while he lies on the floor. Kieran also loves a nylon toy holder with holes, and he gets a kick out of putting his paws through the holes.

Every cat is different. Shape your play so that your cat makes the most of it.

How do you play with your cats?

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.