Cats Just Have to Play! Here’s Why


Cats play because it’s fun. Playtime is filled with stalking, pouncing and batting things, and tumbling and chasing buddies. Although it’s fun for the participants and the lucky observers, playing benefits cats throughout their lives in a variety of ways. The fun activities help kittens develop muscles, coordination and timing, and it teaches them survival and social skills. Playing mentally and physically stimulates cats of all ages and combats obesity. Added benefits: It may reduce the symptoms of dementia in elderly cats, and it builds bonds between kitties and their people. Playing is intrinsically rewarding. If it weren’t, cats wouldn’t play.

Cats play because it’s fun
Cats play because it’s fun. Photo by Shutterstock

Play through the ages

Although cats play their whole lives, as they age, the intensity and frequency of their frolics lessen. Kittens start playing by attempting to bat at nearby things when they are approximately two weeks old. This type of play, called object play, helps little ones develop muscle coordination and timing. As their mobility and coordination increases, so do their frolics and games, helping them discover and orient to their environment. Nothing is exempt from their attentions. All small objects in the household often do double duty as toys. With increased exploration and play, youngsters often develop new games such as stalking and chasing invisible objects.

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

Kittens start playing socially with their siblings and mum around four weeks old. They stalk, pounce, chase and wrestle each other. Play is reciprocal. They take turns stalking and chasing. Social play is very important for learning social skills because playing depends on cooperation and fairness. An added lesson is that it teaches kitties body language — many of the play postures are used later to silently communicate the desire to socialize or for distance. It also teaches the youngsters bite inhibition, boundaries and when to back off. The fun and games ramp up in intensity until the players are 12 to 16 weeks old. In order to reap the full benefits of social play, kittens should stay with their mums and siblings until they’re at least 12 weeks old. After 12 weeks of age, they can graduate …

Kittens playing with each other (social play)
Kittens playing with each other (social play). Photo by Shutterstock

Adult cats need playtime too. They don’t play as intensely or as often as youngsters, but they still love to have fun and let loose. In addition to exercise and stretching muscles, playing is mentally stimulating. It’s an effective weapon against boredom and helps fight obesity.

Playing is not monopolized by kittens and middle-age adults. Elderly kitties enjoy cavorting, and they benefit from the activities. Compared with the youngsters, their playful activities are subdued. Depending on the individual player, playing may be a few minutes of actively chasing an object or as subtle as tracking a toy with their eyes and then tagging it with an outstretched paw. No matter the age of the player, dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released into the cat’s system. Additionally, playing is stimulating; it exercises minds and bodies. These abridged play sessions, along with other activities such as clicker training, done on a daily basis, may slow down the symptoms of feline cognitive dysfunction.

An elderly cat tagging a toy.
An elderly cat tagging a toy. Photo by Shutterstock

How play works

Although it’s debated whether playing teaches kittens to hunt, there are correlations between play and hunting. Cats use the same postures and physical sequences for hunting and playing. Both activities involve stalking, chasing, pouncing and finally catching their prey/toys.  Also, dopamine is released into their systems at the start of the hunting sequence and when play begins. It gradually stops being released only when the prey or play object is finally caught.

Cat playing with a toy.
Catching the toy. Photo by Shutterstock

Unfortunately, kitties are often accused of being cruel because of how they handle their prey after they catch it. What people interpret as playing with prey may be done for safety reasons — felines may be wearing their catches down. Animals, in their attempts to not become meals, will fight and bite their captors. These bites can be serious, they can compromise the little hunters, making it difficult for them to hunt and easier for other predators to catch. Batting the prey around tires and slows them down, making it safer to inflict the close, fatal bite. Another explanation for the behavior is that dopamine levels remain high after the catch, causing cats to remain stimulated.

Cat and mouse games.
Cat and mouse games. Photo by Shutterstock

Get the most out of playtime

Toys that one particular cat likes to play with might not appeal to another. Every kitty is an individual with her own preferences. Successful toys for cats appeal to their senses — smell, sight, touch, sound and taste. Objects that felines can readily manipulate are attractive. They can be batted a distance and chased, and/or they can be picked up and easily carried in mouths. Appealing toys may be soft, feeling good to sink little teeth into. Ping pong balls can also provide hours of entertainment. Novelty is important — the same toys can become ho-hum and boring after a while. Either rotate them out or make them inspiring by rubbing a treat on them.

Kitty playing with a ball.
Kitty playing with a ball. Photo by Shutterstock

Safety is important. Everything can double as a toy, including items that can be dangerous, such as small milk tabs and hair ties that can be swallowed. Sharp objects, yarn and string that can wrap around vulnerable necks as well as pills that are fun to bat around are all hazards. Be mindful and place objects that are potentially harmful where cats can’t reach them.

Toilet paper doubling as a cat toy.
Toilet paper doubling as a cat toy. Photo by Shutterstock

It’s fun to play with cats. Additionally, playing with shy kitties on a consistent schedule can encourage them to feel brave and help them feel safe around their people. The best way to play with kitties is to imitate the hunt. Use a pole toy and pull it away from the little hunter, letting her catch it occasionally. Finally, after the last catch of the session, immediately feed her a healthy meal. She will eat, groom and sometimes take a nap. Play it safe with pole toys, put them out of reach of your cats when you aren’t around to supervise. Good times to play are in the mornings and evenings when cats are naturally active. Avoid laser pointers — in addition to the obvious risks of the beam shining in eyes, they are frustrating because felines can never catch their “prey.”

Cat stalking a wand toy.
Cat stalking a wand toy. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats of all ages should be encouraged to play — but always within their limits. Playing is a lifelong activity that teaches skills, promotes health, fights boredom and is fun! Play for play’s sake.

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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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