It seems simple at first glance, but playing with your cat is a bit more complicated than you might think. The way you play with her now will set the stage for the strength of your bond and encourage her to play in ways that don’t hurt you or other people. It’s also good for her mental and physical health.
Here are my five favorite tips to maximize your cat’s fun, minimize the risk of future bad behavior, and distract her from undesirable habits.
Exercising her prey drive with interactive play is a crucial part of your cat’s development and contributes greatly to her quality of life. When using an interactive toy such as a feather wand or a mouse on a string, move the toy like the prey it’s supposed to represent. When birds aren’t flying, for example, they hop around on the ground and then flutter off to land somewhere else. Mice and other rodents scurry with sudden starts and stops, keeping to corners and hidden places. If you’re really serious about learning to play like prey, watch them at work in your yard or study videos of their behavior.
Cats’ natural life cycles generally consist of hunting, eating, and then sleeping. Playtime before supper can encourage a good appetite. If your cat tends to wake you up in the middle of the night, a 15- or 20-minute play session before you go to bed can help your cat sleep through until morning. Tailor the play to your cat’s own rhythms, though; if she gets the zoomies shortly after she eats, why not accommodate her with an after-dinner game of Chase the Mouse?
It’s really important to let your cat "catch" her prey during the play session. Otherwise, she will get frustrated and either stop playing with you or act out in response to her unfulfilled urges. If you play with a laser pointer, be sure to have some kitty play sessions with a toy she can catch, too. (Read a post by our behaviorist, Marilyn Krieger, devoted solely to the laser pointer.)
It might be cute to see a little kitten batting at your fingers and trying to bite you with her tiny teeth, but when she’s a full-grown cat it won’t be cute at all. It’s much more difficult to train an adult cat out of this behavior than to prevent it, so be sure to tell anyone who visits your cat to use a toy and not their fingers or toes.
If you have an ankle-attacking cat, keep an interactive toy with you at all times. As soon as you see body language that indicates she’s hunting your legs, distract her with the interactive toy. Do this consistently and your cat will learn to exercise her prey drive on her toy rather than your feet. If your cat is a door darter, get her attention with her favorite toy and then toss it in the opposite direction as you’re about to leave.
When done on a regular basis, play is far and away the best tool for bonding, socializing, and training. If you’ve got a cat that’s acting up, give it a try; you’ll be surprised by how well “play therapy” works.
Read more on building your relationship with your cat: