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The Benefits of Playtime for Your Cat

When you think of playtime for a cat, you may think of your kitty being able to amuse himself with whatever toy happens to be within reach. As a kitten, he probably was geared up for an on-the-spot game with anything from a shoelace dangling off an athletic shoe to the curtains gently moving with the breeze near an opened window. As an adult, however, he may not seem as interested. Does that mean he doesn't need to play? Absolutely not. Playtime is an important part of your cat's physical, emotional and mental well-being.

Why Play is Important

Your cat has a top-notch set of senses and those senses were designed to be used. From his keen eyesight to his ability to detect even the faintest of scents, he's ready to explore, discover and enjoy his daily life. Nature has also equipped him with stealth, speed and an athletic ability. In other words, kitty was born to play!

Playtime is, of course, about having fun, but it's also a very powerful tool for helping maintain a happy, healthy cat. Here are some of the benefits of playtime:

  • Good exercise and helps with weight management
  • Helps with separation anxiety and strengthens the bond between cat and owner
  • Helps alleviate boredom and can aid depression in cats
  • Assists in cat-to-cat introductions and builds confidence in shy or timid cats
  • Helps a cat develop a positive association with the environment
  • Helps kittens learn about their developing skills and older cats stay active and engaged
  • Eases tension in multicat environments and stress from traumatic events
  • And so much more!

So, aside from playtime being fun and enjoyable, it can be a powerful tool in your behavior modification toolbox. Whether you've just adopted a cat who is very timid and you're trying to build trust, or whether you're trying to re-ignite that playful spark in your sedentary kitty, playtime done right (and that's the key) can make a world of difference in how kitty views the world.

Two Types of Play

Playtime comes in two forms: interactive and solo. Interactive refers to YOU being the key ingredient in the game. No, I'm not referring to kitty chasing you around the house, but rather, you controlling the movements of the toy. The other type of play – solo play – refers to your cat playing with toys on his own. There's a secret to making both types of playtime more successful. Here's the scoop:

Interactive Play

You'll need a fishing pole-type toy for this. You can find them easily in your local pet product store and online. Basically, it's a wand, strong line and a target toy at the end. Now, here's where the secret comes in: the way you conduct the game is crucial. In my years as a cat behaviorist, I've seen more people do it the wrong way. Just waving the toy around isn't the correct method. You're not going to do that though because you're going to master the technique. Here are the four keys to successful interactive play:

  1. Move the toy away from the cat and not toward him
  2. Vary the speed of the toy
  3. Give kitty plenty of opportunities for success
  4. Wind the action down at the end of the game

Ok, let's break it down. First, it's all about the movement. If you move the toy away from or across the cat's visual field you'll trigger his play mechanism. If you move the toy toward him then the toy becomes an opponent. and it triggers the cat's defensive response. That no longer becomes a fun game - it then becomes a match. No one will have fun at that point.

Vary the speed of the toy so kitty has time to use his brain. If you've ever watched your cat hunting a spider or something interesting in the home, he doesn't just madly race around; he carefully plans out his moves. Because cats are sprinters and not long-distance runners, they use stealth in order to conserve energy. They quietly approach their target and then pounce. If you vary the speed of the toy between fast and slow motion, it'll give kitty time to plan. Playtime is just as much mental as it is physical.

#3 on my list is “success.” No one wants to play games every day and never win. Playtime should be fun, rewarding and confidence-building for your cat. Let him enjoy several little successes throughout the game.

When it's time to end the game, slow the action down on the toy. The reason for this is that it helps relax the cat. If you just abruptly end the game while your cat is still very revved up it can be frustrating.

Interactive playtime should, ideally, be done every day. Take 10 minutes out of your schedule in the morning and let your cat have a great time and then do another 10-minute session in the evening. If you can do more than that it would be great (kitty will love it) but at least try to do a couple of sessions. It's an opportunity to bond, laugh and enjoy your time together.

When interactive playtime is done, put the toy away in a closet so your cat can't chew any stringed parts.

Solo Playtime

This isn't about a bunch of toys left to gather dust in a box or basket, oh no, this is about environmental enrichment. Take some of those fuzzy mice toys you have piled up in the corner and strategically place them around the house. I usually put one on the cat tree, peeking out from under a piece of furniture, sticking out from under the bed, in an open paper bag, in an empty tissue box, and wherever else I happen to think will stir my cat's curiosity. This way, as kitty goes around the house during the day, he'll come across some interesting opportunities for a little playtime.

Puzzle feeders are also a great way to combine meals with solo play. Puzzle feeders come in many forms. The most basic is a plastic ball with a hole in it. You put some dry food in the ball so your cat can roll it around. As he plays with the ball he periodically gets a great food reward. You can also get puzzle feeders that are truly very puzzle-like in that the cat has to push open a slot or dip his paw into a compartment to get the food reward. Just put “puzzle feeders” in your favorite search engine and you'll see lots of options. Many that are listed will focus on dogs but there are still lots for cats. Additionally, some light-weight puzzle feeders that are meant for dogs are also ideal for cats.

Every morning before I leave for work, I place some puzzle feeders around the house, hide some fuzzy mice toys, open a couple of paper bags with something fun inside (a toy or a couple of treats) and if I've had a package delivered recently, I put the empty box out for a while.

Solo playtime can help break of the boredom or combat separation anxiety that some cats may feel when their owners are gone all day.

Be Creative and Have Fun

Even if you think your cat doesn't play anymore or has become sedentary, you can find that spark in him again. It may begin with him just watching you move an interactive toy around but if you make it enticing enough, I'll bet that in no time you'll see him extend a paw in an attempt to play. Whether you're trying to work off some of the energy that your new kitten has or you're trying to get your older cat to become more active, playtime is ideal.

Enjoy playing with your cat. It benefits both of you!

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About Pam Johnson-Bennett

Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and best-selling author of seven books on cat behavior and training. Pam is one of the most well-known experts on cats and a pioneer in the field of behavior consulting. Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, LLC, a veterinarian-referred behavior practice in Nashville, TN. Her website is

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