When we started our cat behavior consultation business nearly 10 years ago, there were a few surprises, but perhaps the saddest one for me was discovering that many guardians don’t play with their cats at all. Some may have tried a toy or two, years ago, but either because the toy wasn’t to their cats’ liking, or because the person’s play skills were lacking, they gave up.
Many tell us, “My cat doesn’t like toys,” or “My cat won’t play.” As we come to a home visit with our own tried-and-true arsenal of wand toys, we are always able to eke out at least a bit of interest in play — even from the most senior or placid of cats. And it is heartening to see our clients’ faces light up (not to mention the cat’s!). Many cats that “don’t like toys” will even do leaps and pirouettes with the right approach.
I see daily playtime as analogous, with regards to exercise and mental stimulation needs, to walking your dogs. We encourage people to keep their cats indoors (or in/out with cat enclosures, a topic for another post), for the cats’ safety, but this does mean that we need to provide for all their needs, including mental. Even cats that go outside reap huge benefits from interactive playtime with their guardians: bonding time, enrichment, sustained aerobic exercise.
No shame if you don’t play with your cat daily (yet!) — you are not alone. Here are some suggestions to build a play routine:
• Set aside time daily, even five or 10minutes.
• Figure out your cat’s preferences for play. Does your cat seem to like snake-like things, bug-like, mouse-like, or bird-like? All of the above?
• Have three to five “wand toys” that you can rotate, to keep things fresh.
• If you follow only one tip, let it be this one: Move the toy like prey. Yes, this means you will not be dangling it in front of your cat’s face, or rubbing her back with it. Moving a cat dancer under something like a fleece blanket or towel can be supremely enticing; prey can be quite subtle. Think of how a mouse moves, and mimic it. Land the feather toy like a bird would land, then flutter it, then rise again.
• Make sure to allow your cat to catch the toy occasionally. For the intense hunters, you may need to have a second toy to distract with (analogous to two-ball fetch, for you dog guardians out there).
• If you have more than one cat, you may need to separate them to allow a full play session, especially if one likes to take over. Or you can always hone your two-handed wand-wielding skills.
• Playtime is aerobic exercise. Make sure to have an appropriate warm-up and cool-down period. Cool down is especially important for cats, as you don’t want to leave them frustrated or riled up. The way I usually cool things down is by moving the toy slower, making it more boring, and last, allowing the cat to self-play with supervision. If your cat doesn’t show signs of cooling down, then switch to a less exciting toy and do the routine again.
• What if your cat loses interest quickly? You may be trying too hard. This is a predator with infinite patience, able to watch a mouse hole for hours on end. Try a different toy, the under-blanket trick. Think like prey and hide.
• Not all toys need to be store-bought; many cats love boot laces or bathrobe ties
Some of the wands on the market are made with cats-as-hunters in mind; others are not as appealing. Our favorites include Da Bird and Cat Catcher by Go Cat (and various other attachments; this company is great at making things move realistically), Neko Flies, and my latest find, the Bamboozler. If you are having a lazy day, there are even some nice automated toys on the market, such as SmartyKat’s Hot Pursuit or the HexBug Nano; these require supervised use, but you won’t have to move a finger, other than to turn them on.
One warning note: Make sure to put away all wand toys when not actively supervising play. Cats can get tangled, or worse yet, ingest them, which can be very dangerous. Keeping these toys out of reach also serves to keep them exciting, as cats will get bored of toys that are out all the time.
Dilara Göksel Parry grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, with beloved dogs that were sadly not cat-friendly. She has since made up for her lack of childhood-cats by working primarily with felines for the last 25 years. She and her family of kids, cats, and dogs reside in Richmond. Dilara and her business partner, Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, started Feline Minds Cat Behavior Consulting (www.FelineMinds.com) in 2008 and provide home consultations in the East Bay and in the Sacramento area and remote consultations worldwide.
Main article photo by: Photo by Ukususha-istock