In the wild, cats spend their days hunting, eating and sleeping an average of 15 hours a day. House cats aren’t that far removed from their wild relatives, but they are accustomed to being fed from a can or bag and their hunting opportunities are likely limited to the occasional moth.
While indoor cats live longer than outdoor ones, an indoor lifestyle can mean that cats aren’t as physically active or as mentally stimulated, leading to obesity or boredom-related behavioral problems. But there’s a simple way to avoid such issues and help your cat lead a happier, healthier life: playtime.
In addition to being good for your cat, engaging your cat in play is also a fun way to strengthen your bond.
From kitten to senior
Cats of all ages enjoy play sessions. Play is essential to a kitten’s development, but even senior cats appreciate playtime when provided with the right opportunity.
Just about anything can be a toy to a kitten, so be sure to keep dangerous items, such as plastic bags and easily swallowed objects, out of reach. While your kitten may love to chase strings, don’t allow him to play with string, ribbon or yarn unsupervised. These items are easily ingested and can cause serious medical problems.
And while it may be cute to watch a kitten chase or pounce on your fingers, it won’t be so adorable when you have a full-grown cat that’s biting your hands, so never use your fingers as toys.
Older cats are often more difficult to engage in play, but it’s possible — and the mental and physical benefits are worth the effort.
Try to get your senior kitty to play at different times of day and with a variety of toys to determine what interests him most. When you find the toy or game that appeals to him, vary the activity in any way you can and gradually increase the amount of time you spend playing together.
What to play with
To encourage cats to participate in solitary play — or interactive play in multi-cat households — it helps to provide the right tools and toys.
If you have more than one cat, you can encourage social play among them by creating the right environment. Furniture at varying levels, as well as items like cat trees and cardboard boxes, invite your cats to climb, hide, chase and pounce.
When it comes to toys, cats have different tastes. Some may enjoy chasing toy balls while others may want to play only with feathered toys. One cat may love toys that make sounds, such as tinkling bells inside plastic balls, but others may be frightened by noisy toys.
Toys that contain catnip are often effective at bringing out a cat’s playful side. (About 70 percent to 80 percent of cats react to the plant.)
Keep in mind that you don’t have to specifically purchase cat toys. Household items like shoelaces, corks and balls of paper can all be engaging toys for your kitty.
Also, look for toys that are a good fit for your cat’s special needs. If your pet isn’t very mobile, try a stationary puzzle toy. If your cat is blind, look for toys that make noise so they can be easily located.
When to play
When your kitty wants to play, it’s often evident in his body language and behavior. An upright or curved tail indicates a friendly or playful mood, but your cat may also start to vocalize, spontaneously play with household objects or get “the zoomies” and begin racing around the room.
Cats often want to play early in the morning or in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, these are probably the times you’re on your way out the door or returning from work and ready to rest. Still, it’s worthwhile to spend even just five minutes engaging in purposeful play.
If your cat has a bad habit of waking you up in the middle of the night, you can also use play to alter this behavior. A 15- or 20-minute play session right before bedtime may be all your kitty needs to sleep through the night.
How to play
For cats, playing is all about hunting prey. This is why kitty enjoys chasing strings and balls and why your cats may stalk and pounce on one another.
When you engage your cat in play with an interactive toy like a feather wand, laser pointer or fishing-pole toy, it’s important for the toy to act like prey would. Make the toy hop around on the floor and suddenly fly into the air like a bird, or have it move quickly across the floor and then hide behind a corner like a mouse.
Be sure to let your cat occasionally catch its “prey,” and even if your kitty loves the laser pointer, switch things up and try a new toy she can sink her claws into.
Also, don’t leave your cat’s toys out all the time — a toy that’s always around loses its appeal. Interactive toys especially should always be put away when you’re not playing with your cat.
"How many times have you seen mice or birds just hanging around a cat? By putting the toy away after playtime, it remains attractive and interesting when you begin the next play session," writes the ASPCA, which also offers an array of easy, cheap toy solutions to keep your feline engaged.