Play can benefit your cat's physical and mental health


Editor's Picks
05 June 2023
As part of International Cat Day 2023, owners are being encouraged to play with their cats for five minutes a day.

This year, International Cat Day is on August 8, 2023. Run by leading feline charity International Cat Care, the theme for the special day is about getting owners to play with their cats for five minutes a day. Our kitties benefit in so many ways from play, improving their physical and mental well-being.

Here, Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Mental Wellbeing and Behaviour at International Cat Care, takes us through why play is so important and asks readers to take part in a short survey about how they currently play with their cats…

Why is playing with my cat so important?

Watching our cats leap through the air and chase their favourite toys definitely gives us the feel-good factor. But did you know that playing with your cat isn’t just fun, it also has a lot of benefits (some of which might surprise you!)…

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Why do cats play?

Play provides a safe outlet to perform predatory behaviours, such as stalking, chasing, pouncing, and biting. For cats, who are genetically programmed to hunt, these behaviours are essential to meet their needs as a species.

In the wild, cats that rely solely on hunting for their food can spend up to 50 per cent of the day hunting — eating 10 — 20 prey to meet their daily calorie requirement. Despite our pet cats being well-fed, they still retain that natural motivation to hunt. It’s almost like they didn’t get the memo that food will be provided daily!

This is because cats are solitary survivors that don’t rely on the support of other cats, and therefore hunting is a solitary activity. If a hunting trip is unsuccessful, the cat won’t eat, which is why cats will still hunt when they aren’t hungry — better to be safe than sorry! Because of this, cats are incredibly opportunistic; if they encounter prey, even unintentionally, they will instantly switch into predatory mode. Though our pet cats are fortunate to have their nutritional needs met through daily feeding of a balanced cat food, play is required to fulfil their welfare need to perform this natural hunting behaviour.

Increased mental stimulation 

Play is particularly important for indoor cats whose only outlet for predatory behaviour is through toys. Without regular play, our hands and feet also risk becoming unwanted targets, especially from kittens and younger cats that are most likely to initiate play.

However, we shouldn’t assume that older cats don’t enjoy or need to play, just because they may not initiate it.

Remember, cats are opportunistic, so if the opportunity isn’t presented, our older cats may not engage. But the toss of a ping pong ball or the swooping of a feather toy on the end of the wand can see even the oldest of cats instantly switch into play mode! Short play sessions can also help with ageing joints and muscles (just be sure to speak to your vet first if your cat has been diagnosed with arthritis or a condition affecting their movement to ensure this is suitable for them).

If you have more than one cat, schedule in individual play sessions with each of your kitties.

Reduced hunting behaviour

Owners whose cats have outdoor access are sometimes concerned that playing with their cats will make them hunt more. Fortunately, the opposite is actually true! Researchers from the University of Exeter found that owners who played with their cats for just 5 — 10 minutes every day with a wand toy and a toy mouse, reported that their cats captured and brought home 25 per cent less prey! And by seeing those predatory behaviours close up — the leaping, pouncing, and batting — we get to see what magnificent and skilled athletes we have in our homes.

Encourages exercise

There is also no doubt that regular active play helps keep our cats in tip-top physical condition. All that stalking, chasing, leaping, and pouncing helps maintain a healthy bodyweight. For those cats that have become overweight, play can be a vital component of a weight loss programme. One study found that a daily 15-minute session of intense play using a variety of toys, combined with other weight loss initiatives, that motivated the cats to move for food, led to significant weight loss in just four weeks.

Reduces problem behaviours

A recent survey of cat owners found that when owners reduced opportunities to play from their cats, they saw an increase in attention-seeking behaviour, vocalisation, destructive behaviour, aggressive behaviour, and reclusive behaviour. This highlights just how important the opportunity to play is for cats. Without it, problems can arise, which at the very least may be frustrating for you, but at worst, represent significant welfare concerns for your cat.

Strengthens the human animal bond

Finally, play isn’t just important for your cat’s well-being, it also has many benefits for us humans. It creates a beautiful bonding experience where both cat and owner can have fun together, but it’s important to play safely for everyone involved. The use of long wand toys, where the toy on the end of the wand is well away from hands, is a perfect option for safe play where even children can get involved without the worry of being scratched or bitten.

What to look for in a wand toy:

  • A long handle with or without a cord (or wire) between the toy and the wand to keep hands at a safe distance.
  • The toy should be small and light so it’s easy to catch and control its movements.
  • Toys made of feathers or fabrics mimicking fur are most appealing to cats.
  • Colour doesn’t matter to the cat — it’s all about the feel and the movement, so feel free to pick the colours you like!
  • Avoid bells (cats can get their claws caught) or toys with small plastic parts, such as eyes and noses, as these can be ingested.
  • Toys that emit a prey-like sound (e.g. a high-pitched ‘cheep’ or ‘squeak’) when moved can be very exciting for some cats.

In scientific studies, owners who play with their cats have reported that it has helped them establish and maintain a bond with their cats. In fact, owners who played a variety of games with their cats felt their cats’ experienced a better quality of life than those who played less. Longer reported daily play times have also been associated with owners reporting a closer relationship with their cats.

Top tips for playing with a wand toy:

  • Think bird — move the wand toy through the air swooping up and down like a bird flying and coming down to rest on the ground.
  • Think mouse — drag the wand toy away from the cat in straight fast lines, sometimes slowing down and even dragging it behind cushions or under blankets like a mouse running into the undergrowth.
  • Let your cat catch the wand toy intermittently. Catching every time is too easy and slows the game, but never catching the toy is frustrating and your cat could walk away.
  • When the game is over, put the wand toy away. It’s unsafe to be left out for your cat to play with alone as there’s a risk of entanglement.
  • Variety is key, so having more than one wand toy stops cats from becoming bored quickly.
  • If you have more than one cat, play with them separately (you can always put those not playing in their own space with a meal or a puzzle feeder). Remember, hunting is a solitary behaviour so cats don’t want others around who may steal their prized toy!

Hopefully, this has convinced you that playing with your cat is beneficial for their physical health, mental well-being and quality of life, but also an important part of the bond you share.

Support the campaign

At International Cat Care, we’re big fans of cat play, so much so, that this year’s International Cat Day (August 8, 2023) campaign will be themed ‘Purrfect Play Every Day.’

To help support the campaign, we are looking for cat owners to complete a short survey about cat play. Participants will be entered into a prize draw for the chance to win a custom pet portrait by celebrated animal illustrator Lili Chin!