Boost Your Cat’s Mental and Physical Health: Play Games


On average, cats spend around two-thirds of their lives recharging their batteries by sleeping. A large portion of their remaining awake time is spent on activities that help increase the odds for survival, including those that hone hunting skills. Although our indoor companions are safer inside and don’t need to live by their wits, they still have the same predatory instincts as their wild cousins — to watch, stalk, sprint, pounce, strike, and catch prey. No matter their age, these little ones need stimulating indoor activities, such as games and play that exercise these instincts and keep them from becoming bored.

Kitten playing.
Kitten playing. Photo by Shutterstock

Here are some activities that will help keep your cats from morphing into couch potatoes:

Treasure hunts

Inspire your cat to work for a portion of her food through treasure hunts. You can use treats or cat food for the game. The goal is to hide the food on cat furniture or shelves, or inside of cat toys, paper bags, or boxes, among other creative places. The kitty will have to work and burn calories in order to eat a portion of her food. Treasure hunts are more challenging then jumping off a couch and leisurely sauntering over to the food bowl.

Start with the basics and gradually build up the game so that your kitty has to work harder in order to find the food. Position a treat or morsel of food that your cat adores near her where she can see and smell it. In order to claim it, she will have to walk over to it. Place the next couple of food morsels slightly farther away, in different spots. Gradually up the complexity until she has to jump up on shelves, scoop with her paws, and check out boxes and bags in order to claim her prizes that are strategically placed throughout the room. Adjust the game to your individual kitty — be mindful of her age and physical limitations. You don’t want to frustrate your cat — the goal is for her to seek out and find her food.

Cat preparing to jump up to get a treat.
Cat preparing to jump up to get a treat. Photo by Shutterstock.


Exercise your cat’s inner predator through play. Pam Johnson Bennett suggests playing with cats in a way that imitates the hunt and incorporates the hunting sequence. Start by using a pole toy — never use your hands. Drag the toy at the end of the pole away from your little hunter, allowing her to occasionally catch it. Drag it over scratchers, sofas, and cat trees as well as around corners. Encourage her to stalk, strike, pounce, and catch her prey by how you move the toy. Finally, end the play session with one final catch and, if possible, feed her. Two play sessions a day is preferable — but more is better.

Adjust the intensity and length of the sessions to your cat’s age and physical condition. Just about everything and everyone becomes a plaything to a kitten, whereas an elderly cat may be transfixed by the movement of the toy and interact just by tracking it with her eyes or gently swatting at it.

Everything is a toy to a kitten
Everything is a toy to a kitten. Photo by Shutterstock

It’s important that your kitty catches the prize when she plays. Avoid using laser pointers — they will leave her frustrated. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released into the system when cats start playing. It stops firing once they’ve caught the prize. Unfortunately, using laser pointers to play teases cats, because the elusive red dot can’t be caught. The dopamine keeps firing, leaving cats frustrated and often stressed. Felines need to feel the tactile sensation of their catch with their paws.

Olivia with her toy. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC
Olivia with her toy. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Treat rolls

Treat rolls are exactly what they sound like. These games inspire kitties to chase and catch toys and food without venturing away from home. Favorite treats as well as small toys your cat can safely hold in her mouth, without swallowing, work well. These toys become highly alluring when they are scented by rubbing them with her favorite treats. Roll one toy or treat at a time near your cat — directing it away from her. In order to win the prize, she will have to chase, pounce, and finally catch it. If your home has stairs, add an extra dimension to the game by rolling the treats and toys down the stairs. Every kitty is unique — elderly kitties and those who have special needs may not be able to easily navigate up and down stairs. These little ones need an abridged variation of the game to fit their special circumstances.

A cute cat waiting for a treat to chase down the stairs. Photo by Shutterstock
A cute cat waiting for a treat to chase down the stairs. Photo by Shutterstock

Be creative — invent other games and activities you can do with your cats. Keep in mind they should be fun for the kitty and incorporate natural behaviors. An added bonus is that these activities will help to build and strengthen the bonds between your cats and you.

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Do you have 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, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, 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.

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