How to play with a cat

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

"Some of the cat's psychological needs may also be met through social interactions with the owner, such as play and displays of affection." - Bradshaw, Casey and Brown, THE BEHAVIOUR OF THE DOMESTIC CAT.

Why do animals, including cats play? Play behavior for many species is thought to serve multiple purposes. Play develops skills needed for hunting, exercises the body, facilitates social bonds and boundaries and is intrinsically rewarding. Play is more than anything else, a fun thing to do. Most, if not all animals play and watching animals at play can yield the close observer some universal rules of play applied:

  • – it’s a game as long as everyone knows and agrees it is. Humans may announce an invitation or intent to play with words, dogs with play bows and cats with side steps and pounces but no matter what the species the request has to be met with acceptance. Everybody has to want to play.

- Everyone has to collaborate on making sure the game stays a game and not a fight. Movements are softer and more fluid, performed with less severity and force, some moves are off limits and care is taken not to hurt the other player, this so called “self-handicapping” means that each is aware of how they are affecting the other and is careful to keep things light to stay in the game.

- Attention to each player’s reactions is constantly monitored and responded to. Teasing has no place in a game. Neither does playing too rough. That bite was too hard? A little yelp or meow told you so. Not listening? That yelp got higher and the meow turned into a growl. If you stopped and things got softer, we can keep playing. If not, we’re done and if you keep it up, we not play again.

For cats, play behavior is highest in frequency as kittens and begins to drop off at four months of age. But individuality, environment (studies show home-bound cats have more interest in play than outdoor cats) and how play is on offer, no doubt affect the cat’s appetite for play.

To enrich cat life at home and to deepen social bonds with both human care givers and other resident cats all cats need to play and things to play with. Cat toys and puzzle feeders supply objects for solitary play, while human and feline housemates can offer social play opportunities. Interactive play is one of the most significant opportunities to increase positive associations around new cat (and people) introductions, changes in environments and developing the human animal connection. Don't forget that we, as human care givers, are the most important aspect of the cat's environment. Including time for play is important and just as important is making sure to play by the rules for both cats and people.

While older kittens and adult cats may indulge in less play, they are still vitally interested in opportunities for play. Play is thought to serve to sharpen and maintain predatory skills. And like play, hunting is no doubt just as fun for cats. One study looked at 101 hunting events by cats with only 32 of those events as successful. Another study looking at cats that had success in hunting showed those cats “cats captured an average of 2.4 prey items during 7 days of roaming”. Those cats, like most are opportunistic hunters, they catch what is easiest, and the study cats made off mostly reptiles, namely lizards. The cat’s stalk, wait and pounce method of hunting is better suited to catching reptiles and small mammals (voles numbered highly in the study after lizards) as opposed to birds that if able to, can fly away.

Hungry cats are known to catch more prey than well fed ones but hunting and roaming and being interested in prey appear universal. And interest is hard wired not just by need but by desire and intrinsic reward. All this is to say that offering play to your cat is not just what a cat wants but what a cat needs. So how to provide the best cat friendly play sessions?

The top daily interactive play starts with a fishing wand toy. These sessions can have the most impact on your cat's behavior and your relationship with them. When a cat plays on their own there is a predictability to the play - when you are at the other end of the wand toy the interaction is dynamic. That toy you are manipulating at the other end of the fishing wand can be the unpredictable "prey" object they are designed to enjoy pursuing.


- Draw or drag the toy away from or across the cat's line of vision to best engage them. Think of the feathers or fur at the end of the wand as standing in for a mouse, bird, etc., and how that might move when a cat might have the best opportunity to catch it. Be careful not to "attack" kitty with the toy. Mice and birds retreat from and do not advance on their predators. Play can stand in for the thrill of the chase for cats, but they need to be the hunter not the hunted.

Vary your movements to keep it interesting and engaging for the both of you.

- Cats have been shown to truly benefit from schedule and routine and through them the sense of control they afford. Keep play regular and as close to on schedule as possible. Linking a play session to before a meal can help to put those sessions on our own observed routines and can add to a cat's satisfaction of "catching" breakfast or dinner.

- While a long play session can be a good thing, keeping the cat's interest and keeping it doable for the human is key. Know that less can be more- two to five minutes in the morning and evening are good amounts of time to spend in play. The most important thing is that these session happen, even if the time they do, slips every now and then.

- Experiment with different types of wand toys to see which your cat loves best (I see the feathered ones getting the most response but every cat is different). - Some cats may not engage initially. Keep going. Notice which sorts of play movements you perform that garner the most reactions and which type of toy your cat shows more interest in, no matter how slight.

- Keep your reaction muted - no happy camper puppy voices please, cheer on kitty by using your "elevator voice" and thinking encouragement instead of speaking it. - Keep the toy out of sight and in a place where kitty cannot access it when you are not using it for safety and novelty concerns.

- Keeping play sessions on the regular schedule you set is key. Making play an "on demand" event is only a good thing if you can fulfill every single request, an unreasonable and frustrating expectation when unmet.

- Avoid laser pointers- they can be dangerous if misdirected, are inherently frustrating and offer nothing to catch ever. If you must use them, let it be sparingly (they are good for redirecting cat squabbles for instance) and have them disappear under a door and throw a treat where the beam ends.

- Want to see how different play looks like and how to do it? Watch my video here.​


-McGregor H, Legge S, Jones ME, Johnson CN (2015) Feral Cats Are Better Killers in Open Habitats, Revealed by Animal-Borne Video. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0133915.

- Strickler, B. L., Shull, E.A. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Vol 9-5, p 207-214

-West, M. (1974), Social Play in the Domestic Cat, American Zoologist, Vol 14, 1, p 427–436,

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