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Playtime 101

How to Play With Your Cat

By Molly Rosen

Sometimes in the course of our work, we meet a cat parent who claims their cat isn’t very playful. But then when we care for that kitty, we find that they actually do enjoy play. (Not every time—sometimes the cat truly isn’t interested in play, and that’s fine.) But we find that many kitties can be enticed to play, with the right methods.

Playtime is a very important aspect of keeping cats happy and healthy. However, not every cat parent instinctively knows how to get their cat to play. It’s mostly a matter of figuring out what sort of prey instinct your cat has, and bringing it out. Here are some tips:

  • Assess the situation:  Look at the toys they have. If all they have are little balls and things to bat around, try getting them a wand toy, a play ring, or some other toy that is different in some way (to see our post on Our Favorite Toys, click here).
  • Say buh-bye to what’s not working:  Nothing is sadder than an old toy sitting in the corner gathering dust. Remove toys that your cat no longer has interest in. If it’s old and worn out, toss it. If it’s still in decent shape, clean it up and relegate it to what I like to call the Marination Station.
  • What’s the Marination Station?  Simply put, it’s any bin with a tight cover into which you can put a good amount of catnip (how much is up to you, but I have about 2 cups’ worth in mine). Toss in those cat toys your cat hasn’t played with in a while (or ever), snap the cover on tightly, give it a shake, and let them marinate until it’s time to rotate!
  • Rotate those toys!  Just like human kids get bored with their toys, so do cats. That's why it's a good idea to put some toys away for a while, and then change them up every so often to keep them new and interesting. We recommend having 3 or 4 different sets of toys that are rotated in and out.
  • Purchase some new toys. Try different types of toys—maybe a wand/fishing pole type toy; something that makes noise or has feathers; a laser mouse; the possibilities go on. Do some research—the internet is your friend—and make choices according to what your cat responds to. If your budget is tight, no worries! Some of our favorite toys are some of the cheapest (see our post on Our Favorite Toys).
  • Figure out what your cat responds to. It may take a few tries with different toys and methods:
    • Does he or she like to jump in the air after things that are flying around up there? Or, does something dragged along the ground get their attention more? No two cats are alike, but we have found that generally, cats respond more to one way than the other. Other, very play-oriented cats will respond to nearly anything, but in general, cats go after either flyers or crawlers.
    • Does he or she go after a toy that is coming at them, or instead do they seem frightened, bored, or annoyed? Take note and if it doesn't seem like they enjoy it, stop doing it immediately and try something else. Some cats would rather stalk and pounce on something than have it simply waved in front of them. If your kitty does go after something waved in front of them, be sure to hold it out far enough so that kitty can see it. Cats can’t focus on things that are very close up.
    • If you are using a “fishing pole” or other string type toy, try dragging it very slowly. Make it look like a little mouse or a bug making its way across the surface. Subtle movements are sometimes the best. If your cat perks up, assumes stalking position, and starts eyeing it like a hunter, you’re on to something! Pull it slowly toward the edge of something, where the toy will suddenly disappear from view as it goes over the edge/around the bend. Some cats will leap to find out where it went. Then you can drag it quickly so the cat chases it.
    • Catnip: A fresh catnip toy can really get some cats going. Others, not so much. About 80% of cats respond to catnip, and the rest just don’t. Make sure you are getting a potent enough toy—some toys advertised as “catnip toys” have barely any catnip scent to them. Once you give them the toy and they respond, they will likely really enjoy it for 10-15 minutes or so and then be finished. The “effects” from catnip only last about that long. (They may need a long nap afterward, though!) It is recommended to pick catnip toys up and then reintroduce them again at a later time. If they have really gone to town on the toy though (some actually drool, chew and suck on them), it might have lost its potency altogether and never make your cat as happy as the first time ever again. Every cat is different! Figure out what works for yours.
    • Some cats respond to crinkly toys. There are many toys on the market that are either just little balls of crinkly material, or softer, cloth-based toys with the crinkle material inside. I don’t know the statistics on it, but a good number of cats go nuts for this. You can buy a little crinkle ball very cheap to see if Fluffy likes it.
    • Laser mouse:  Some cats go nuts for it; others aren’t fooled and are totally unimpressed with your efforts to deceive them. Luckily, these are also cheap to buy and try. If you do, be sure never to shine the light in their eyes. Also, since they can never actually catch the dot, it's nice if you can sneak some treats or kibble onto the floor when they're not looking, and have the laser dot end up on the kibble so they have some reward for all their chasing.
    • Homemade toys:  Toys can be made out of all sorts of materials and they can be amazingly simple. For instance, a wadded-up piece of paper, a milk cap (or the ring from one), or a string from an old shoe. Or you can take an existing store-bought toy and make it more interesting by tying a string onto it and hanging it someplace or drag it around. Use your imagination! Just make sure it’s not something they can accidentally swallow.
    • Timing is important!  Take note of when your cat is most active, and choose those times to play. Afternoon naptime probably isn't the best choice.
    • IMPORTANT: Remember to never use your hands or feet as toys during playtime. Although it may seem cute and harmless with kittens, as your kitten grows into an adult cat, they will think it's an appropriate form of play. You can imagine the potential consequences.

Once you figure out how to get your cat’s prey instinct to kick in, tons of fun are sure to follow! Be sure to let Fluffy catch the prey once in a while; otherwise it can seem futile to them and they will lose interest. Always praise them when they catch it, so they know you are impressed with their prowess. Happy playing!



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