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Play It Forward (Cats Play And Prey Preference)

Getting plenty of physical activity is important for cats, especially those who live indoors. Cats are adapted for certain kinds of play, so becoming familiar with the things that stimulate your cat to play will lead to you having more fun and forming a closer bond.

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Cats require physical exercise and play to be healthy

Cats need to play. Cats may seem very independent, but the fact is, cats are very social, depend on their relationships with people and other animals, and do actually need to play. The American Association of Feline Practitioners cites studies that show that if cats lack adequate stimulation, there can be significant “consequences for their physical and mental well-being.” (American Association of Feline Practitioners)

All healthy cats do play. If a cat doesn’t seem to like to play, it is worth trying different kinds of toys. Once you’ve found a toy or toys the cats like, be sure to change them from time to time. If a cat doesn’t play at all, and appears lethargic or disinterested, it may be a signal to take the cat to the veterinarian for a check-up. Sore joints, poor nutrition and other health problems may keep a cat from playing.

Physical activity:

  • Improves brain function including mood, energy level, focus/concentration, and memory.
  • Decreases stress and, often along with that, reduces inappropriate behavior.
  • Promotes joint, muscle, and tendon health.
  • Improves heart, lungs, and circulatory system.
  • Prevents boredom.
  • Prevents obesity.
  • Improves sleep quality.
  • Strengthens bonds with people and playmates.
Studies show that cats of a healthy weight play with their humans more often than owners of overweight cats. (Kienzle and Bergler)

Cats at “play” mimic hunting behaviors

Catering to their natural instincts is the best way to keep cats at their happiest and healthiest. Cats fending for themselves hunt and catch up to 20 small prey per day. People living with cats can see this expressed in typical energy levels and sleep cycles: cats rest for several hours, then quickly leap into action when prey – or playthings – come around. Most cats enjoy stalking and ambushing toys before enthusiastically pouncing, batting, attacking, leaping and swatting at them. The American Animal Hospital Association sums it up best: “they’re designed for short, frequent periods of intense activity, rather than longer, slower-paced exercise sessions.”

Find out if a cat prefers toys that mimic mice, birds or insects. Research has found that individual cats favor certain types of toys that mimic their favored prey. Figuring out a feline’s prey preference will enable you to make more successful guesses at new toys for the cat. (See “Identifying prey preference” from Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.)

Play in ways that stimulate a cat’s senses: sight, sound, smell and more

Cats have evolved to use their senses in particular ways, such as stalking and pouncing on prey. Sight, hearing and smell are used in hunting, and clever toy designers make toys to provide just the stimuli to get cats playing.

Eyesight: Wiggle, flutter, dangle and roll: motion is important when cats play. Their eyesight has evolved to see moving things better than stationary objects. This is partly why very few cats play by themselves. (Unless they smell catnip or honeysuckle.) Cats are naturally more interested in toys when we’re making them twitch, wriggle, sway and dash around the house.

Cats with visual impairments have an easier time locating toys when they make noise or have strong scents, which catnip and honeysuckle can help with.

Introduce obstacles to pique their interest. Many cats enjoy seeing toys disappear under or in things, particularly under rugs and in boxes or paper bags. Most cats prefer to play with toys when there are a few hurdles to getting the toy. For example, a cat may move her toys to play with them under a table where there are lots of chair and table legs in the way. This is one reason why some cats respond well puzzle box toys, such as the Peek-a-Prize.

Hearing: Squeak, chirp, twitter and zing: Cats have sensitive hearing so sounds are a powerful stimulus. Toys that make noise are very appealing to some cats. Some toys have electronic sounds that mimic chirping, burbling water, and tweeting. Other toys have rattles or bells inside them. Crinkly sounds may evoke thoughts of tiny bird bones breaking – music to a cat’s ears.

Smell: Rotate toys and refresh old toys with catnip. For cats who enjoy catnip and/or honeysuckle, old toys can be refreshed by using catnip or honeysuckle sprays. Store toys in dried catnip so when digging into a stash of toys to rotate the ones available for cats to play with, old toys are once again really exciting.

Taste: Feeder toys work great for some cats. There are a number of toys designed for people to put treats or kibble in, and cats have to work to get the treats out of the toy. Consider using one of these toys with overweight cats: put a portion of the day’s of dry kibble in one of these toys and the cat will get a lot of exercise as she works to get her fed.

Engage and challenge a cat’s mind: Training is a form of play. Believe it or not, most cats are easier to train than dogs. Many cats enjoy the mental stimulation of learning new things. (See “Training your cat” from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and “Go, cat, go! Get your cat off of the couch with agility training” from American Animal Hospital Association.)

kittens and strawA few closing words

Safety check: When selecting toys in a store, do a quick safety check. In the U.S. there are fewer regulations for cat and dog toys than for children’s toys and many cat toys. Take the time to inspect the toy options, and use your best judgement about whether or not it could pose a risk. When introducing a new toy to a cat or a dog, it is always best to observe how they play. If anything looks to dangerous, take it away. (See “Unsafe toys for your cat” from Cats International.)

Do-it-yourself cat toys: Some of the most exciting and inexpensive toys many people already have around the house: plastic drinking straws, ping pong balls, plastic Easter eggs (add some rice or unpopped kernels of popcorn if the recipient likes toys that make noise), crumpled up paper balls, crumpled up foil, wine corks, plastic rings from milk jugs, the cardboard center roll from toilet paper, paper bags, cardboard boxes. Many people hand make, knit or sew toys for the cats from scraps of other creative projects too.

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