10 top tips for playing with your cat

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31 March 2022
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Behaviourist Clare Hemington recommends what would be her 10 cat-mandments when it comes to play for your cat.

"How we behave towards cats here below determines our status in heaven" - Robert A. Heinlein.

I found this quote and thought it the perfect one to finish my series about the power of play. You might have gathered by now that I’m pretty passionate when it comes to play and the amazing benefits it can provide for our cats. However, throughout the series one or two of you may have noticed me being the teensiest bit repetitious. This is because there are certain general principles surrounding this entire subject that I’ve wanted to subtly drive home. So, in this final article I’ve brought these together in the form of my 10 golden rules which if followed, will maximise the benefits of play for your cat and in turn provide the greatest reward for you. 

1. Schedule play with your cat every day

If you acquired your cat thinking that he would amuse himself, then there’s a fair chance that he will have quickly dissuaded you of that notion. Despite the fact that they spend inordinate amounts of time sleeping each day, cats do need to be kept entertained, after all, idle paws make for broken ornaments and shredded furniture. To avoid this, it’s important to schedule sessions of interactive play with him — in other words, you and your cat playing together. 

I use the word schedule quite deliberately. By scheduling play sessions at specific times of day, you’ll be more likely to remember it’s playtime and will be creating a routine, which, as you know, is something cats love. Adult cats with outdoor access will benefit from at least one interactive session per day, while for adult indoor cats at least two sessions are recommended. Kittens need as much interaction, including play, as your energy allows! And in my opinion, all elderly cats, no matter their age, will enjoy a bit of gentle patting of something that sparks their interest. 

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2. Remember, less is more

Cats aren’t exactly known for having long spans of attention, unless of course they’re staring out next door’s cat or keeping guard by the entrance to a mouse nest in the hope that one will eventually come out. When it comes to play, they can get bored very quickly. Quite often this is because they have already ‘killed’ the toy and are therefore no longer interested. So, keep sessions short; this could mean anything from one minute to ten minutes, depending on your cat’s play drive, and always stop the game when your cat starts to lose interest. However, if your cat wants to keep going, feel free to indulge him! The important thing is to be guided by your cat. 

Choose your toys carefully.

3. Get the timing right 

To get the most out of your play sessions, choose a time when your cat is naturally active. Cats are crepuscular hunters, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Time permitting, my recommendation would be to play with your cat after his breakfast and/or during the evening. 

4. When it comes to cat toys, buy wisely

 In my experience you can always get a cat to play, it’s just a question of finding the right toy. One of my friends bought her cats a range of toys because they matched her décor and needless to say, they remained in the toy basket untouched. And it is easy to be seduced by something because of the way it looks, but my advice would be to think more about your cat as a top of the range predator. What does he enjoy doing? Stalking, chasing, pouncing, manipulating, biting, and shredding. Also think about what textures might appeal to him, such as fur, feathers, and fabrics that he can really get his claws into, such as sisal and hessian. If he already has a preference for a particular type or texture of toy, stick to it. It’s better for him to have a variety of the same type of toy that he enjoys rather than lots of different types that he doesn’t. Also, think about the size of toy, which I might add, doesn’t necessarily have to relate to size of cat. 

My first choice for shop bought would be the fishing rod toys that have something furry or feathered attached to the end of a length of cord or elastic. These are brilliant for cats that like chasing, jumping, and pouncing, but I also know that some cats can find the movement frightening. If you find this happens with your cat, simply turn the toy around and gently manipulate the rod end around the floor. And speaking of running and jumping, if you’re tempted by the cat laser toys, make sure you have a small toy or treat in your hand that you can throw to allow your cat to capture, bite, and complete the kill! 

My other favourite cat toy recommendation is the smelly toys; in other words, those that contain catnip, valerian, silvervine, and Tatarian honeysuckle wood. I never tire of seeing cats cast their dignity aside as they lick, cheek-rub, drool on, roll around, and generally lose themselves in the scent of these toys. Don’t forget though that one in three cats doesn’t respond to catnip, so having a selection of scented toys to offer yours is a good idea. 

Homemade toys are often the biggest hits with our cats!

5. Think homemade 

We might be forgiven for thinking that cats are complicated, but one area where this isn’t true is play. I’ve lost count of the number of cat owners that have told me that their cat’s favourite 

toy is an everyday item that they had at home. And it’s absolutely true, the best toys are often the simplest. 

Some cats love playing fetch with scrunched-up paper, while others might have a penchant for straws. When it comes to playthings for your cat, the sky’s the limit. My favourites are old shoelaces knotted throughout their length either with or without something stuck in the end. Straws can have thin shoelaces threaded through them to enable you to manipulate them around the floor, and if you happen across a feather (in good condition) lying around outside think how much your cat might enjoy jumping up at it as it flutters to the floor. Lightweight balls, such as ping pong balls, are also great fun and cardboard boxes or paper bags (handles removed) with treats, a toy, or a pinch of catnip inside can make exploring fun.

If you know what your cat likes and you have the time and creativity, it can be very rewarding to make something for him. I’ve seen the most amazing castles created from cardboard boxes as well as really effective toys made from wool and even old socks. 

6. Make movement work for your cat 

To get your cat really engaged in play, you should aim to move the toy in a way that simulates the movement of his natural prey. Try moving the toy unpredictably; trailing it along the floor for a short distance then keeping it still for a few moments, then moving it suddenly to the left or right, allowing it to fly briefly, then trailing it along the floor again. Or you can put the toy under something, such as a rug or piece of paper, with the end peeking out. Then pull it back so the end is hidden and vary the lengths of time you allow your cat to see it. For cats that are more people oriented, such as Siamese, why don’t you become the prey and play hide and seek with your cat! 

7. Rotate, rotate, rotate

To maintain your cat’s interest in his toys (and to avoid you spending more money than needed on new toys), seal them in a ziplock bag that contains a pinch of catnip or valerian. Then bring out two or three different toys each day. This also applies to nighttime when cats can be particularly active.

8. Think outside the toy box

 When it comes to play, it’s not just about cat toys. Cats also benefit from other types of activity such as puzzle feeding and foraging. Offering your cat his dry food in containers that allow him to work for his kibble can provide much needed challenge and stimulation, while foraging for treats can also be great fun. Try hiding a number of treats around your home in containers, such as half open egg cartons, yoghurt pots, cereal boxes, and toilet roll inners, and let him sniff them out! This is a great way of keeping your cat distracted on days when you’re not at home. Remember to incorporate any treats given into your cat’s daily allowance of food. 

Play will get your cat active and help to keep him healthy.

9. Play safe 

I can’t overestimate the importance of checking toys before you allow your cats to play with them. Do remove items such as eyes and noses that could be chewed off and ingested. Think about which toys that your cat plays with that could compromise his safety and make sure you’re there to supervise. When your cat has finished playing, ensure any toy that could get caught around his neck is hidden somewhere he can’t find it. This includes shoelaces, string, and the cord from fishing rod toys.   

10. Don’t be mistaken into thinking that play can resolve behaviour problems

While providing opportunities for your cat to play provides wonderful enrichment which in turn can help prevent behaviour problems occurring, it can’t fix long-term behaviour issues, such as chronic anxiety and inter-cat relationship problems. In these instances, behavioural intervention is usually needed.

By following these rules, you can not only provide your cat with an enriched and fulfilled life, but in doing so you might just be securing your place in heaven…