Cat Behavior and Training: Play and Play Toys

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

What should I look for when I am buying toys for my cat?

Cats are natural hunters and will stalk, chase, pounce on, and capture things that move. Most cats enjoy a variety of toys which they can hunt, seek, attack, and carry.

Mouse toys or other small stuffed options, ping pong balls, crinkle balls or crinkled paper, motorized chase toys, and balls housed in tracks or loops can provide hours of entertainment for cats.

Monitor your cat during play to ensure they do not consume any non-food toys. For times when you are not available to play with your cat, your cat may enjoy chasing a battery-operated toy or batting at a toy that hangs from your doorknob.

Providing novelty can help build interest and value in toys. Keep an assortment of 20 cat toys on hand, but give your cat only 4-5 options at a time. Rotate the toys weekly to hold your cat’s interest. Cats also tend to have short bursts of energy and play, followed by longer periods of rest. If your cat plays for just a few minutes then appears to lose interest, it doesn’t mean he dislikes his toys.

"Providing novelty can help build interest and value in toys."

Wand or fishing pole toys are favorites of many cats. You can purchase these toys or make them yourself. Store-bought options often come with a variety of tips (feather, cardboard, felt) that can be rotated for variety. Never leave cats unattended with wand- or fishing pole-style toys. Cats can get tangled in the toy or ingest the string and become dangerously ill.

Should I buy catnip toys for my cat?

Several cat toys are advertised as being filled with catnip, an herb that contains nepetalactone. Cats that respond to catnip exhibit short-lived behavior changes ranging from relaxation to excitement. The response to catnip is determined by a cat’s genes - approximately 50% of cats do not respond at all. If your cat is a responder, giving access to catnip can add another dimension to his life. However, if your cat becomes agitated when under the influence, it is best to avoid products containing catnip.

My kitten loves to play a game that involves chasing my fingers as I run them across the back of the sofa or pouncing on my toes as I move them under the covers. Is it okay to play these games with her?

Chasing and pouncing are elements of feline predatory behavior and your cat may spend hours engaging in these activities. Though rapidly moving toes and fingers might attract your cat, this type of play can be problematic. Once your kitten matures into a larger, stronger cat, pouncing on hands, feet, and other body parts could become painful or cause injury. Even superficial cat bites and scratches can become infected. Interaction with human hands should be limited to the context of affection and to being stroked and petted.

As a basic rule, it is best to only play predatory games with toys that your cat can eventually catch and “kill”, such as toy mice, pieces of food on the end of string, or balls of rolled-up paper. Be certain to offer several play sessions with chase toys each day. When possible, try to schedule play at times when your cat is most active.

I have heard about cat toys that dispense food. Are these a good idea?

Toys that dispense food are often referred to as puzzle feeders, food toys, or foraging toys. Food-filled toys can provide enrichment and exercise for indoor cats, particularly those that tend to be sedentary. Foraging toys and puzzle feeders also give cats a wonderful outlet to fulfill their innate desire to hunt, with the bonus that they are able to eat their “prey”.

Foraging toys and puzzle feeders are available in many pet shops. When your cat bats at, rolls, or manipulates the toy, food is delivered through openings in the toy. The Indoor Hunting System by Doc & Phoebe’s is a good example of this type of toy. It is also easy to make your own foraging toys from a plastic bottle or container. You can create small holes (be sure there are no sharp edges) that are just big enough to release pieces of dry cat food placed inside.

Does my cat need to climb?

Many cats seek high resting places, favoring locations that allow them to relax while still keeping an eye out for possible threats. Having access to an elevated resting spot may be especially important for cats that occasionally need a break from other pets or young children tempted to chase after them. Some cats appear quite relaxed when resting on the top of the refrigerators or on a bookcase. Be sure to put a soft, non-skid bed in your cat’s favored location.

Note: It is important to ensure your cat can walk around the house safely without being chased. It is okay for cats to choose elevated spots for a comfortable bit of shut-eye; however, it is not okay if they are up high because they are too frightened to join the rest of the family.

Many commercially available cat shelves and wall-mounted climbing or resting areas are available. With some imagination, there is no limit to the fun you can have building a dream house for your cat. More information is available in the handout “Cat Behavior and Training - Enrichment for Indoor Cats”.

Does my cat need an indoor cat tree?

Cat trees provide secure, elevated resting spots. Many are also designed with climbing, hiding and playing opportunities to help create an enriched environment - which is particularly important for indoor cats. Activity trees should be placed in areas where the family spends time, rather than hidden away in a back room or garage. Secure the tree in a spot away from a wall if possible, so your cat can hop on from a number of angles.

What is a scratching post, and why is it important?

All cats need to scratch. Scratching shortens and conditions the claws, marks territory (both visually and with scent), and provides an effective whole-body stretch. See the handout “Cat Behavior Problems - Scratching Behavior” for details about selecting an appropriate scratching post for your cat.

When my cat was a kitten, I played with her every day, but surely as an adult these playtimes are no longer necessary?

It is a common misconception that cats only play when they are kittens. Adult cats also benefit from regular playtimes and playful interactions with people. Even as cats get older, they maintain their ability and drive to hunt. Cats will readily engage when offered a game that allows them to chase and pounce.

When should I play with my cat?

The best time to play is when your cat appears to be naturally interested. Predatory activity naturally occurs around dawn and dusk, so morning and evening playtimes are likely to be the most successful. The length of each play session should be adjusted based on your cat’s interest. Most cats can benefit from having several 10-minute play sessions every day. Be sure to provide a variety of toys to help maintain novelty and keep your cat’s attention.

What is the best way for me to play with my adult cat?

When playing with your cat, avoid having your hands close to the toy. Use a wand toy to encourage your cat to stalk, chase, and “kill” the prey. With practice, you can keep the prey “alive” for a long period of time - but be sure your cat does not become frustrated. Cats need to be successful or they will lose interest. Another game to try is “fetch”, as some cats are natural retrievers. Training “tricks” can be fun and, if your cat is interested, the training counts as play. Have fun!

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