How to choose the right toys for your cat to play with


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What should you look for when buying toys for your cat? Clare Hemington is on hand to help.

Here I am, writing a series on play when my own cat Billy refuses to conform to a principle that I have long held which is you can get any cat interested in play. In mitigation, he is a Siamese and happiness to him is to spend each and every day being tickled and patted on the bum. Or perhaps I just haven’t found the right toy. So, on that note, I thought it would be a good idea to explore the world of cat toys and look at how you can get your cat playing by choosing the right toy.

Cats will play using their hunting instincts.

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A force for good 

No matter how old or young your cat is, regular play is hugely beneficial to his health and well-being, and while some cats will happily keep themselves entertained by pouncing on a shadow or jumping up at a fly, it’s still important to be able to offer him some toys to challenge him, stimulate him, and distract him from any anxiety that comes his way. 

There are two main ways to get your cat playing. You can use toys that allow you and your cat to play interactively together, and secondly, you can provide toys that your cat can play with alone. It’s possible that your cat might prefer one over the other or enjoy both types of play, so it’s a good idea to have a variety of toys at his disposal, which inevitably means trying to figure out what he might like. 

From talking to cat owners over the years, I’ve learned that buying cat toys is quite an exciting experience for us, so much so that we often purchase toys that appeal visually to us. However, what we like is almost certainly not going to provide the same allure for our cats.

To maximise the chances of getting your cat to engage with his toys, the following criteria should feature in your decision making: the size of the toy, its similarity to prey, its texture, its weight, and whether or not your cat has been previously exposed to something similar. 

Toy criteria  

For interactive play, one of the best toys to use is the fishing rod that has a length of string or elastic attached to it with a toy on the end. I recommend those where the toy is interchangeable. This provides your cat with variety which should keep him interested in playing this type of game, as long as you remember to rotate them.

However, you don’t have to buy fishing rod toys, you can make perfectly good alternatives at home that do the same job. I use a length of string or shoelace and attach a feather or a bit of furry fabric to the end, but anything that mimics the shape, size, or texture of a cat’s natural prey, and which you can manipulate in a way that simulates the movement of their prey, will more than likely get your cat’s senses tingling! It’s important not to forget that playing interactively with your cat also gives you and your cat quality time together and is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the bond between the two of you. 

Choosing toys for your cat to play with on his own can also be a bit of a minefield. 

There are literally thousands of different types available and it’s easy to get lost in indecision when presented with such a vast array.  But if you stick to the criteria around the toys similarity to prey in both size, texture, and weight, and whether it can offer your cat a moving target, you shouldn’t go far wrong. 

Does Size Matter? In terms of size and weight of a toy, it’s a good idea to think about the size of your own cat. Is he a feline colossus or a petite pussycat? Big toys, such as the cat kicker, are usually robust enough to withstand the full force of a larger cat but might be too big for smaller cats. Having said that, I’ve seen tiny little kittens happily playing with big toys so there isn’t always a connection between the size of a toy and the size of a cat, but it is something worth considering. When it comes to small toys though, most cats, no matter what their size, seem to like the fact that once they have ‘killed’ it, they can proudly pick it up in their mouth and carry it off somewhere. 

As for texture, toys made from feathers and fur (real or faux) are ideal as they most closely resemble a cat’s prey. It’s also important to choose some toys that disintegrate or change when your cat plays with them. Shredding prey is one of the stages of the predatory sequence so any damage that your cat can inflict on a toy will add an extra element of fulfillment. And I’m sure you’d prefer your cat be doing this to a toy, rather than to the real thing.

However, while I would recommend having a selection of toys that look and feel like mice and birds, in most homes there is an inordinate number of everyday items that cats are happy to play with, anything from straws to screwed up paper, corks, and any small ball. These can keep your cat well and truly entertained at no cost to you at all.

Find out what your cat likes.

Smelly Toys: No toy box would be complete without some toys that provide your cat with scent enrichment. These include toys made with catnip, valerian, silvervine, and Tatarian honeysuckle wood. These all contain compounds that cats can go a bit loony over, but not all. For example, whether or not a cat responds to catnip is genetically determined and the only way you’ll find out if your cat is one of the one in three that doesn’t respond is to try it out on him. If it’s a no-go, then you’ve got the other plants up your sleeve. And even if he does go ga-ga over catnip, exposing him to the scents of the other plants will give him natural variety.  

Electronic Toys: There are now lots of toys around that can help keep your cat occupied either when you’re out or just not in a position to acquiesce to his demand for play. These range from motion activated toys, battery-operated toys and digital toys, to those that an owner can control via a smartphone. 

Motion activated toys have a built-in sensor that wakes the toy up when movement near it is detected. I’ve seen a lovely example that has a butterfly attachment which can be pounced on! I’ve also seen toys that use a moving laser beam, but while this might engage your cat, not being able to catch anything can cause frustration.  

I’ve seen the same type of thing available as a ‘smart’ cat toy. So rather than the unit being motion activated, it is controlled by an app on your phone. Both these types are a good option for owners who are out for long periods. 

There are also some really good battery-operated toys, such as those where a mouse moves erratically under a mat, or a furry mole peeks from one of any number of holes in the base unit. 

Digital games are represented by the enormous number of videos for cats on the internet. These are free and can be a great way to distract your cat but viewing should be curtailed if your cat displays signs of frustration at not being able to get whatever’s on screen. I would say that it’s definitely worth having one or two of this type of toy in your armoury. 

Play is a great way to bond.

It’s not just about toys

Play doesn’t always have to mean getting cats to engage with an actual toy. It could mean giving them opportunities to fulfill their natural desire to explore and investigate new things, such as the cardboard box your latest delivery arrived in or the paper bag that contained your groceries. Once these are emptied of their contents, they can be placed on the floor with some catnip or a treat inside ready for your cat’s curiosity to get the better of him.

It can also mean providing them with a perch (ideally a cat scratching post with a platform) in front of a window where they have their very own front row seat to whatever’s going on in the natural and human world outside. 

Word of warning

A word of caution about any toys you choose. Make sure that parts that can be bitten off and ingested are removed before giving the toy to your cat. Likewise, avoid leaving any string or rod toys out where your cat could get caught up in them. If you use paper bags, ensure any handles are removed. 

Choosing the right toys for your cat is no easy undertaking, especially when you consider how a cat plays and what he plays with is more than likely shaped by his genetics, experience, and how he’s feeling at any given moment. 

Something else for us to think about is that when it comes to real prey, cats tend to have specific preferences. So, if you have a cat that always brings home mice then it’s likely that he’s going to respond to small furry toys, both in physical and digital form. However, this doesn’t mean you should limit the toys you provide your cat with to this type — it’s important that he is able to experience a variety. 

For all cats, my advice would be to provide a selection of toys, big, small, furry, feathered (as well as other textures), shreddable, chase-able, smelly, and electronic, and offer them one at a time to find out which your cat is attracted to. 

As for my cat Billy, I finally found something that he loves: mouse videos. And while this might not be my toy of choice for him, I can’t begrudge him something that, as a senior citizen, genuinely absorbs him for long periods of time. What also makes me happy about this is that it supports my belief that you really can get any cat interested in play in one form or another.