Playing with Cats the Right Way! - Cat Info Detective

Playing with Cats the Right Way!

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings playful friends! Skye Blake here with a cheeky question… Do you know how to play with your cats?

“Of course,”, you say, “I just give them a few toys and they’re fine. What else is there to know?”

Well, actually, there’s quite a bit more!

paw prints coming in from a distance

Let’s discover what your cat wants you to know…

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page. 

All sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping… 

Why Should I Play With My Cat?

children playing with white cat, wand toy

Because it’s fun! Seriously folks, it’s fun for you and your cat.

Playing with your cat, along with food, litter and safe territory, is one of the most important things you can do.

It builds a positive bond between you and your cat, gives mental stimulation, fulfills innate hunting needs, and is fun for both of you!

black cat watching wand toy

You benefit by having a satisfied, calm cat who won’t attack your ankles when you walk by and sleeps through the night if you play before bedtime.

Felines have individual purrsonalities but all cats have that hunter inside, even slower elderly ones!

children using wand toy playing with white cat

You just need to know why and how cats play to be successful at it.

Let’s start with investigating why cats play…

Why Do Cats Play?

Burmese cat playing with feather toy

Play is simply a cat’s instinctive need to hunt… you’re playing but your cat is hunting real prey in her mind!

Hunting is the essence of every cat’s being… we have to hunt to survive and be a cat.

After all, we’re the world’s most efficient hunters… unfairly blamed for all kinds of havoc with birds and other small animals.

Cat looking intently at bird on branch

(By the way, that’s not all true… but that’s another topic.)

Even though you feed your cat, that need to hunt hasn’t gone away.

If there’s no outlet it can turn into destructive behavior… now your feet are prey!

Types of Play

white kitten playing with toy

Cats have two ways they play…

  • Object play
  • Social play

Object Play

black, white cat by ball tunnel, toy

Cats love to play with an assortment of objects, especially things like felt mice, bottle caps and tops, hairbands, feathers, and aluminum foil balls.

Anything that imitates a flying bird or scurrying mouse has a good shot at being of great interest… if you make it move like them.

Movement and sound are the key to grabbing a cat’s interest, not just dangling a toy over her head.

ginger, orange tabby kitten wearing collar, tag, bell

Some cats prefer flying prey and others like ground-based prey, so you should test and see what sparks your cat’s inner hunter.

She may love both!

Some toys are fun but should be put away when you’re not supervising.

white cat biting feather wand toy

It’s safer this way and has the added value of giving your cat “new” toys when you rotate them.

Discover more about cat toys at “The Best Cat Toys“.

Social Play

curious cat watching kitten walk into play tunnel

Adult cats don’t play socially with other cats unless they’re already familiar and accepted into their group.

Otherwise, the cats quickly become aggressive, challenging each other as territorial enemies… not something you want to encourage.

children playing with white cat, wand toy

When you’re playing with them, cats who normally get along can develop rivalry over the toy, so it’s best to play separately to avoid that.

But more about that later…

How Cats Hunt

cat playing with orange ball tower

You understand that a cat is hunting when she plays… now think about how she does it.

Watch her hunt bugs or toys and see what movements stimulate those instincts, then imitate them.

It’s stealthy, measured moves done according to a plan that’s formulating in your cat’s mind.

tabby kitten playing with toy bear

Pam Johnson-Bennett, noted cat expert, explains hunting beautifully…

Cats don’t hunt by engaging in long chases.

A cat is a sprinter and doesn’t have the lung capacity to chase prey to exhaustion.

tabby cat hunting chicken down the road

His skill is his stealth… the hunt is as much mental as it is physical.

[Hunting]…takes planning, speed, and accuracy.

A cat hunts by silently scouting the area, alert to any sound, scent, or movement that might indicate potential prey.

cat hunting in hay

When the cat spots the prey, he uses his exquisite stealth to stalk the target, inching closer and closer.

He uses any available object for cover such as a nearby tree, bush, or a rock.

His body and head are low to the ground. Whiskers and ears are in the forward alert position.

tonkinese cat hunting

The unsuspecting prey goes about its business as the cat efficiently closes the gap.

When the predator gets to within striking distance, the cat pounces on the prey with lightning speed.

If his aim is good, the prey will instantly be killed by a well-placed bite to the spinal cord.”

Let’s Play“, Cat vs. Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Penguin Books, New York, 2004, p. 73

Room Prep

graphic of living room

Before playing, make sure the room you’re using has places for your cat to hide and then pounce.

Cats hide and stalk in order to sneak up on their prey, so playtime should include this.

Ideas for Hiding Places

Sphynx cat looking out from inside play tunnel
  • Furniture
  • Curtains
  • Tunnels
kittens in a box
  • Cat caves
  • Empty boxes
  • Open paper bag without handles (rolled back a bit for stability)

How to Play Effectively

bengal cat, small dog watching teaser toy

Most people throw a few toys on the floor and expect cats to be happy playing with them.

Ok, we might bat them around, then push them under the sofa, never to be seen again.

That doesn’t work because it’s not moving prey! Here’s how to be effective…

Effective

graphic cartoon cat chasing mechanical wind-up toy mouse
  • Provide your cats with toys they can play with on their own
  • Rotate them frequently
  • Prepare the room before playing
graphic cartoon cat holding up mouse toy
  • Play with each cat individually once or twice a day when your cats are most active, morning and evening is best for their internal clocks
  • Use wand or fishing pole toys and make them simulate prey running or flying
  • Stop free feeding… establish a daily feeding routine
drawing of cat wearing apron, cap, holding meat pie
  • Include meals or treats at the end of playtime as the hunting reward… satisfying the hunt, catch, kill, eat rhythm in your cat
  • Play just before bedtime and feed the last meal of the day to help your cat sleep through the night instead of waking you at 4AM for food
  • Get everyone in the family involved

Not Effective

graphic cartoon of cat looking at dangling fish toy
  • Throw a few toys on the floor and forget about them.
  • Dangle a toy above his head
  • Wave a wand toy around weakly and declare your cat’s not interested
  • Wave the toy around wildly, making your cat run a marathon

Discover more about cat toys at “The Best Cat Toys“.

Wand Magic

black, white kitten playing with fuzzy wand toy

Wand toys are a secret weapon for you to use when playing with your cat.

They allow you to move the toy like real prey while keeping your hands safely away from claws and teeth.

Prey darts around like a mouse looking for cover, running under a chair, quivering and sitting as still as possible, then scurrying around again.

Black kitten playing with toy

Moving the toy this way is as much fun for your cat as the real thing… remember, your cat sees it as real prey.

Make it dart around, go under a chair, quiver and sit still a moment.

This gives him a chance to plan and prepare the next move in the hunt!

It’s the same idea if your cat prefers air play… move the toy like a bird or butterfly fluttering and landing (just not on the sofa or chair).

Play like this until your cat is tired and even panting, using this “boil and simmer” method a few times.

High energy cats will need more rounds of play than others but it’s well worth it for you both.

Hunting Sounds

cat looking at mouse in den

Cats have great hearing and can hear a mouse scurrying in a wall or through grass or leaves.

Using the wand toy to make noises is something many cats love.

You can do this by having it “scurry” or “fly” into a paper bag and rub it around the inside, making noise as you do it.

Tufted titmouse - bird

This can also be achieved by making scratching noises with it along the side of a box or on the floor.

Some toys are made to make bird, insect, or mouse noises as they move.

The End

tabby cat bringing toy prey up catwalk on wall

Always end on a successful catch and kill… but don’t just suddenly stop.

Help him wind down by keeping the activity on the ground and slowing the pace gradually.

Make sure your cat gets at least a couple of catch & kills in every session.

cat eating from food bowl

Once he has completed the final great catch, offer him a treat or his meal.

This will satisfy his mental and physical prey drive and he’ll be more relaxed.

When you’re done playing, put the toys away where the cat can’t get them.

2 cats playing on cat tree

A cat can swallow the string or get tangled up, so wand toys are best stored when you’re not able to play and supervise.

A bonus is that if you do this before you go to bed, your cat will be satisfied and sleep longer, so she won’t be waking you at 4 a.m. for food.

tabby cats sitting together

Once you master this, you’ll want to keep wand toys handy (but out of cat’s reach).

You can use them to defuse tensions by redirecting one cat’s attention away from another cat to the fun toy… saving everyone from trouble.

The Play/Feeding Connection

Tabby cat eating from plastic bowl

Establishing a play/feeding routine with each of your cats is very important since cats love routine and don’t like change.

Daily play and feeding routines meet your cat’s nutritional, exercise and mental needs.

They also help keep the peace and prevent fights in multi-cat homes.

Daily Rhythm
woman making meal, cooking, raw diet

Use the rhythm of the day to your advantage…

Morning and evening are when cats are most active… and you are too.

In the morning you’re getting up and ready for the day, so the activity level is high.

keys in door lock

Then when you come home the activity level is up again… and your cat responds to it.

That’s why behaviorists recommend playing and feeding at those times of day.

Meals With Play
cat with mouse in mouth

Timing meals as the final “kill” at the end of playtime fulfills the inner cat’s hunting cycle.

The play/feeding routine releases that feline energy and prepares for a nice groom and nap.

Instead of free feeding, which defeats the play/feeding rhythm, set up specific mealtimes, depending on your cat’s needs.

automatic motion cat feeder

Cats like small, frequent meals, but it’s best to discuss your cat’s individual needs with your vet.

There are timed feeders that you can get to regulate when your cat eats and the quantity… gotta love technology!

Discover more about that at “How to Feed a Cat“.

The Scaredy Cat

black fluffy scared kitten, fear aggression

If you have a scaredy cat, using a wand toy lets her play with you but allows her space at a distance from you. It’s a great way to build trust with her.

If she’s afraid of the wand and toy, try using a string without a toy at first.

Let her sniff it in her own time without moving it, but don’t let her chew on it.

fearful cat hiding

This will help her figure out that it’s something positive, not threatening.

Rewarding her with a treat when she’s comfortable with it will reinforce that positive association.

Mixed Messages

confused woman

There are a few things to remember when doing interactive play with any cat.

You can send mixed messages that confuse your cat and cause you frustration.

Keep the toy in permitted areas only
cartoon drawing of cat in living room-art
  • Don’t bring the wand toy up and onto the chairs or sofa, where you don’t want him to claw or scratch.

You’re telling the cat it’s ok to claw at the furniture while playing, but when you’re not playing, you’re saying “no, you can’t do that”.

Always move the toy away from the cat
cartoon drawing tabby cat looking at mouse

When playing, always move the toy away from the cat to get and keep his interest.

No self-respecting prey would ever run toward a cat!

If a rat or mouse turns and runs toward a cat, the cat runs because now the prey is a threat… until the rodent runs away again.

Group Playtime

black, tabby cats on wall highway

If you have multiple cats, you may not have time to play with each one daily.

What do you do then?

You can do group play, but this can be tricky because cats hunt alone and consider other cats rivals for food.

two tabby cats playing with toy

The last thing you need is to create a competitive situation where your cats see each other as a threat.

This negative association can quickly descend into territorial wars and fights.

Preventing Competition

Dark tabby kittens swiping at mouse toy

The key to preventing competition is to use different wand toys, one in each hand, so the cats don’t have to compete for the same toy.

This way each cat has a positive experience being around the other while hunting their own prey… “Hey, that other cat is fun!”

children using wand toy playing with white cat

If you have more than two cats, you can work with two at a time that have the same energy level or that get along well.

It could be two that seem to need it the most that day.

If you’re playing with one cat but don’t want to get the others riled up, take that cat into another room.

Successful Group Play

black cat watching wand toy

Successful group playtime requires you to be in control the whole time.

You have to be comfortable with your “play technique” because you have one wand in each hand, moving them like prey simultaneously.

This method can encourage a shy cat to get involved, but you have to be able to discourage a more aggressive cat’s tendency to take over.

If you’re playing with one cat but don’t want to get the others riled up, take that cat into another room.

Redirecting Focus

Tabby, white cat lounging on chair, looking at camera

When you use two different toys, you can redirect when one cat loses interest in his toy and starts eyeing the other one.

Slow down the movement of the more interesting toy and get the other one moving more actively like prey.

The cats can change places as long as they’re focused on separate toys.

Once the cats are refocused on separate toys, you can get both moving again.

Play Needs of Seniors

old senior grey cat

Keeping your cat playing regularly throughout her life helps keep her healthy and comfortable.

As cats age they slow down (just like people) and can develop issues like arthritis that make it difficult and painful to move around.

The hunting instincts are always there, but the older body isn’t able to respond easily to those instincts.

Longhaired tabby cat sitting looking sleepy

When you start to notice changes in her ability to move and jump, have her checked by the vet and discuss your observations.

Playtime, along with monitoring litter box, eating, and drinking habits, enables you to see subtle indicators of physical and mental changes that you can discuss with your vet.

Adjust how you play, watching her focus and movements, and changing how actively you move the toy.

white, orange fat cat sleeping, obese

You might change from air play to ground play, keeping the toy moving on the floor instead of making your cat jump for it.

Even if your cat’s just pawing it or walking slowly after it, she’s getting some exercise… and every little bit helps.

Play Needs of Kittens

2 tabby half-grown kittens lounging together on a cat tree bed

Kittens are born hunters, so their instincts respond to movement… aha, prey!

Then comes intense focus, stalking, butt wiggle, and… pounce!

Your involvement in kitten play is vital for them to learn that toys are for playing but hands and feet are not!

tabby kitten playing with teaser wand toys

Provide your kittens with safe toys for object play as well as wand toys for interactive play.

Use the same play techniques for kittens that we discussed above for adults… just have more sessions each day.

Make sure everyone in your household is using only wand toys to play.

woman kissing kitten's neck

Tickling their little tummies and teasing with your toes tells them hands and feet are fair game, so resist the urge!

It may be cute now, but it won’t be in a few months when those claws and teeth are fully grown!

Kittens also need social cat play… playing with their mother and fellow kittens is important for their development.

tabby kitten with toy bear

They learn the boundaries of clawing, biting, and play fighting.

This is one reason vets and behaviorists recommend that kittens stay with their mother and litter until at least 8 weeks, preferably 12 weeks old.

It’s also a great reason to get two kittens instead of one if you’re able.

2 orange tabby kittens

Their high energy bounces off each other instead of you!

They learn best and are healthiest and happiest when you provide a cat-friendly environment and establish consistent feeding and play routines.

Discover more about appropriate toys at “The Best Cat Toys“.


Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

The Cat Whisperer by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com

Decoding Your Cat, by Editors, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., New York, hmhco.com, pp. 90, 102-8, 155-6, 202, 223, 230-2, 244-6, 284-5,

“Feline Play Behavior”, Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians by Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, MS, Dept. of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University, Texas, W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA, 1980, 1992, pp. 31-37

“From Tiny to Mighty, I Like the Way You Move”, Tiny But Mighty by Hannah Shaw, Plume, Penguin Random House LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com, pp. 133-138

Let’s Play“, Cat vs. Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Penguin Books, New York, 2004, p. 73

Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss” by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011

Total Cat Mojo“, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com, New York, NY, 2017

“The Trainable Cat” by John Bradshaw and Dr. Sarah Ellis, Basic Books, Hachette Group, New York, 2016

Updated April 14, 2024

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