Why do cats play? Why does anyone play? Sure, it’s fun, but it also has many benefits.
Just like us, kittens play at things that adults do to learn skills needed for survival. In our case, it may be running, or cooking, or driving a truck. For kittens, it’s hunting. Their rough-and-tumble playfulness has a purpose, while also providing great exercise for their growing bodies and brains. Cats have to strategize every attempt at hunting and learn how to change their tactics mid-leap, if necessary.
Cats are designed to hunt many times a day, eating 8-10 small meals in a 24 hour period. Of course, not every attempt is successful. Under natural circumstances, these bursts of mental and physical energy are very brief but frequent. In between each attempt, after eating and grooming, they rest – but they’re always alert for the next opportunity (and to make sure that they don’t become someone else’s meal)! This all requires a great deal of alertness.
When cats don’t have the chance to strategize and exercise, they can become lethargic, unfit, overweight and even depressed. (Sound a little like what we have been going through during this COVID-19 pandemic?) In fact, as with people, we now know that cats need mental and physical exercise for well-being and that without this, they can develop many physical ailments (including cystitis, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease). They may also express their frustrations in ways we dislike, such as aggressive behaviour, spraying, or scratching.
Clearly there are benefits to playing. But what are the best toys and best ways to play with cats?
When you bring home a new toy and your cat shows interest but walks away after a minute or two, don’t feel that you have wasted money or failed. Most of the time, cats play for only a brief period. (Unless you are trying to sleep. And that is because cats are “crepuscular”, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk.)Just like us, cats need to “score a goal”. Not every time – that would be boring, but frequently enough to make it worthwhile. So, when you play with a laser pointer – a great toy because it can be both a “mouse” or a “bird” – make sure that when you are ready to stop playing, you finish the game with the laser dot landing on an edible treat or on a stuffed toy that they can “kill”. This will help prevent frustration and anxiety.
What if you have more than one cat? Because cats hunt and eat alone, they have a physical bubble of about 3-6 feet/1-2 metres. Help them respect each other’s personal space – that way they can play with abandon rather than wariness.
Because play is an expression of predatory behaviour for cats, feeding devices, such as indoor hunting devices or puzzles are a wonderful opportunity to have cats “work” for their food, get some mental and physical exercise and not just eat out of boredom. Bowls are a thing of the past. A great website to help ease you and your furry friend away from “the bowl” towards a more natural way of eating is Food Puzzles for Cats. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) even created a consensus statement on How to Feed a Cat. It’s that important. The new slogan is “no free lunch”. Your cat will thank you!
Cats, like children, need positive, predictable interactions with their people. Make sure you include playful periods every day! Your cat will thank you for it (probably with some sweet headbutts and perfect purring).
This article was written by Cat Healthy feline specialist Dr. Margie Scherk DVM, Dip ABVP (Feline Practice).