Cat Play the Right Way: 7 Mistakes to Avoid

Nature designed cats to be efficient little predators and to hunt even when they’re not hungry (because who knows when the next meal will scamper by?). Play is the indoor cat’s version of hunting. It’s an expression of a host of hardwired feline behaviors. Cats who do not use their minds and bodies in natural ways become fat, bored, stressed, and may eventually show behavior problems.

So what’s going on if your cat isn’t playing? It’s possible the play you’re offering is not enough like real hunting. Here are some common play mistakes cat caretakers make.

The toy is not what the cat likes to hunt. Individual cats have individual prey preferences, often learned from their mothers. Some cats hunt at night because their preferred prey is nocturnal. Scratching, rustling sounds excite these cats. Cats who hunt critters active in the daytime are more stimulated by movement.

Other cats may prefer a toy that flies through the air, wiggles on the ground, hides and disappears, or moves in plain sight; a toy that is light, feathery, small and furry, long and snaky, easy to carry in the mouth, easy to bat with paws, fun to chew, or several of the above. What your cat likes to play with is what you should give him.

The motion of the toy is unrealistic. Real prey is unpredictable enough to make the hunt interesting. They run at different speeds. They change direction. They scurry under the couch or behind the curtains. They play dead and then suddenly jump up and make a break for it. Automatic, wind-up, hang-on-the-door, and motion-detector toys don’t act like prey. Most follow a simple pattern when they move that cats can quickly figure out. Sometimes inattentive humans do the same thing when they wave a toy around. Cats need interactive play with toys that move in unpredictable ways.

Often, knowing which toy is a favorite will tell you how the cat likes to play. Bugs (and bug toys) fly in circles close to the ground or in erratic patterns and land on low surfaces.

Mice alternate walking and running. A mouselike toy moves fast, stops for a bit, then inches along, then runs again. Mice like to hide behind and under things. Going beneath a door or behind a couch leg is what a mouse would do.

Snakes crawl slowly. They often stay still or move only slightly.

Birds fly around and land on chairs and tables, then stand still for long periods before taking flight to land someplace else.

The cat has killed that toy too many times. When you’ve killed the same little mousie 100 times, it’s truly dead. For some cats, when you’ve killed the same toy twice, it’s dead. Cats need new toys from time to time—how often depends on how quickly your cat stops playing with the toys he has. Some cats need different toys during a single play session and will play a lot longer if you just switch to a different toy.

You don’t need to buy a basketful of toys; simply rotate the toys you have. Put a few in a drawer for a month or two while others come out after a long absence and are suddenly new again. Try mixing up toy types, too. But if your cat only likes fuzzy things that dangle from a string, then stick with that—just offer different string fuzzies every week or two.

The toy disappears in the middle of the hunt. Cat stalk their prey before pouncing. They don’t have the stamina to do a lot of chasing, so they have to make every pounce count. That means watching and planning are part of the hunt. A cat who is not moving but is visually locked onto a toy is still engaged in the game. The cat may even run away from the toy to stalk from across the room or crouch behind a piece of furniture for a better pounce.

If the cat isn’t pouncing right away, we tend to assume he’s not playing and put the toy away—often when the cat was in the middle of a hunting sequence. Now he’s learned that you can’t be trusted to keep up the game, and he’s more likely to ignore you when you pull out the toy again.

The toy appears to be suicidal. Prey moves away, not toward the cat. Prey may try to hide under or behind something. It keeps making small movements and small sounds. Understanding this gives you clues about how to make a toy enticing to your cat. Make the toy move away, cleverly changing direction, dashing for cover, and popping out again.

If the cat doesn’t show interest, you’re not likely to get a response by touching the cat with the toy. That’s not what prey would do. You get a better response by slowly moving the toy under a piece of furniture or a towel on the floor. Or move a toy behind you and out of sight. Your cat will soon follow to see where it went.

The toy is too hard to catch. While some cats like to leap into the air, grabbing for a toy, many do not. From the cat’s point of view, leaping is a last-ditch attempt at a catch. If your cat is jumping for the toy, he’s not actually hunting. See what your cat prefers, but for many (especially older cats), prey should remain on the floor.

Make sure your cat catches the prey many times during a play session. In a 10-minute play session, the cat should catch the prey at least 10 times. A toy that can be bitten or even torn limb from limb is most satisfying. (The toys your cat destroys are the best toys! Keep buying or making more of those.) Let your cat catch the toy and then make it struggle a bit. That makes the cat feel like a successful hunter.

The game ends too abruptly. Take a few minutes to wind down the play session, so you don’t leave your cat more keyed up than when you started. When caught, prey struggles a bit, then stops struggling. Think about a wounded animal: It will start to move more slowly and erratically. It may be still for long periods of time and then move just a little. It will be easier and easier to catch. Let the cat catch the toy more and more often as you wind it down.

Eventually, let the cat catch the toy a final time. Drop the toy on the floor. The cat may bop it a few more times, along with a few more bites and shakes, to be sure it’s really dead. Don’t put the toy away until the cat has walked away; if you pick it up while the cat is still interested, the prey has been resurrected.

End every play/hunting session with a small treat. This cues the end of play and ends it in a natural way: The cat has stalked the prey, pounced on it, bitten it, killed it, and finally, symbolically eaten it, with the treat substituting as the prey. Very satisfying! 

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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