Cats are thought of as a low maintenance pet. Unlike dogs, they don’t require miles of walking every day. Depending on your cat’s personality, he may not want any attention from you. However, if you think your cat doesn’t need to play at all, this isn’t the case.
Like us humans, pet cats have an easy life compared to their wild ancestors. They don’t have to hunt for small animals or run from predators. There’s no need to come up with clever hiding places from which to ambush their prey. We provide our pets with food and comfy cat beds to lounge on.
In other words, house cats have gotten lazy. Lack of exercise and mental stimulation can cause a multitude of health and behavioral issues in our pets. Don’t worry, it’s easy to avoid this with a little playtime. In this post I’ll explain the psychology of feline play and look at some of the best cat toys to keep them busy.
Why do cats play?
First of all, what is play? The dictionary defines play as “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation”. So, the important question is, what do cats enjoy?
Cats’ favorite activity is hunting. It satisfies a primal urge. Your cat’s wild ancestors hunted to keep themselves and their offspring alive. Although cats were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago, they have retained their predatory instincts (source). Providing an outlet for your cat’s desire to hunt will lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.
The Benefits of Playing with Your Cat
Playing with your cat can solve a multitude of behavioral problems. Cats often misbehave out of boredom. In some cases, “bad” behavior is just your cat trying to hunt something inappropriate. Our boy used to pounce on and bite at our toes whenever we walked around in sandals. I now realize he was trying to hunt them! We may be too big for him to catch but he thought our toes were separate little creatures. Now that I play with him twice a day, he’s less interested in our feet.
If you’re sick of your cat running wild at night, try adding an energetic play session before bed. This should help settle your pet down. Since his hunting urge has been satisfied, he’s less likely to start chasing shadow “prey” in the middle of the night.
If one of your cats is a bit of a bully, devoting time to hunting “prey” can stop him hunting the victim cat. In addition, allowing more timid cats to experience the victory of a successful hunt gives them confidence. Playing also fosters human-feline relationships. It’s a fun experience for both pet and owner and allows bonding.
Like humans, cats get a bunch of health benefits from the exercise involved in playing. Regular chasing sessions can help prevent obesity and keep muscles strong. Puzzle-style games stimulate your cat’s mind while scratching toys satisfy the urge to claw and keep the nails healthy.
How to Play With Your Cat
It should be clear by now that playing with your cat should mostly center on simulated hunting. Follow the natural progressiveness – hunt, catch, kill, eat. Try to spend at least 10 – 15 minutes twice a day playing with your cat (source). Here are some tips on effective cat’s play.
Step 1: Getting your cat’s attention
Every cat has a different personality. Try a few different approaches to see what catches his interest. Older and overweight cats have less energy and stamina. You’ll have to work a bit harder to catch their interest but they still benefit from short play sessions several times a day. You can increase the duration as your cat’s fitness level increases.
If you have trouble getting your lazy cat to play, try turning the lights down. Cats often prefer to hunt in the dark. Another way to entice your cat is to use a toy with catnip, or rub catnip on an existing toy. Don’t use the same set of toys everyday as your cat will get bored. Use one or two at a time and put them away when you’re finished. Swap the toys every few days so your cat thinks he’s getting something new.
Even if your cat isn’t chasing the toy, as long as his eyes are following its movements, he’s engaged and using his brain. If you’ve tried for a few minutes but he’s just ignoring you, stop and try again later. He’s probably just not in the mood right now.
Step 2: Hunting-style play
Hunting-style play transformed the way I interact with my cats. Even my lazy British Shorthair was captivated. The trick is to mimic the movements of a small bird or mouse.
Swing the toy through the air, letting it land and hop on the ground. Keep your movements erratic and unpredictable or your cat will get bored. Vary your direction and speed. Never move the toy towards the cat. Prey would never come close to the predator.
One thing my cats love is when I hide the toy temporarily. Move the toy behind something so the cat can’t see it. In most cases, your pet won’t be able to resist pouncing when his prey comes into view again. Laying out tunnels and boxes can help set the scene. Both cat and “prey” can use it as cover.
Some cats like to play fetch. If this is the case, use a toy that’s easy for your cat to pick up in his mouth. Throw the toy across the room and when the cat brings it back to you, praise him by petting. If he doesn’t return it, bring it back yourself and throw it again. It will probably take your cat a while to catch on to the game, and some cats simply aren’t interested in playing fetch.
Step 3: Winding down
When you’re ready to finish a play session, let your cat catch the prey. If you don’t, he could get frustrated and not engage in the future. When your cat wraps all four limbs around the toy, kicks and bites it, he is trying to “kill” it (source). Wind down gradually, allowing the “prey” to struggle a bit before stopping. Finish with a small snack to complete the “hunt, catch, kill, eat” cycle. This will also encourage future engagement as your pet knows there’s a reward at the end.
What to Look for in a Good Cat Toy
The best cat toys are interactive – cats don’t like to play alone so you need to get involved. Toys should be around the same size as a cat’s natural prey. Feather toys mimic small birds while small fluffy toys look like mice and laser toys mimic insects. The bests interactive cat toys allow you to move the toy without getting your hand too close to the cat’s claws. Toys on a string or wand work well. Here are some other qualities that cats like:
- Reflection of light
- Different textures
- Noise allows cats to locate their “prey” by hearing it
- Erratic movement
- Tents and tunnels to hide in and pounce from
- Well made toys that will withstand biting and scratching
What are the Best Cat Toys?
Even if you’ve purchased the best cat toy ever, your cat will get bored with it if you don’t mix things up. To keep your cat’s interest, get a few types of cat toy and alternate them. The most common types of cat toy include scratchers, wand/fishing rods, toy mice, tunnels, food dispensing puzzles, lasers, catnip toys and climbing toys.
Wand/Fishing Rod Cat Toys
In my opinion, wands or fishing rod cat toys are the absolute best. You have full control over the toy’s movements without needing to get your hands within claws’ reach. I recommend getting a few with different things on the end to keep your cats entertained.
I think this style is one of the best cat toys for exercise – although that does depend on your own stamina! If you can run around with the toy for 10 minutes, it provides great aerobic exercise for both of you. This one from Go Cat has a fluffy little mouse on the end of a flexible wire. The wire makes it a bit more sturdy than string variants and your cat will love chasing the little creature around your home. Another awesome wand toy is the so-called cat charmer. You can use it to create circles and swirls. The changing shape is sure to attract most cats.
The best cat toys for kittens
Although play is important for all cats, it’s particularly vital for kittens. Kittens learn co-ordination, social and communication skills by playing with their siblings (source). If your kitten has been separated from its litter, it’s up to you to teach it how to play safely. Allowing your kitten to bite during play could lead to bad habits which are hard to shake in adulthood. Kittens have a lot of energy and are captivated by the most simple toys. If you’re looking to wear them out and prevent mischief, you can use the best cat toys for active cats like the wand/fishing rod style above.
In addition, provide some toys that the kitten can play with after you get tired, such as crinkle balls. They don’t move by themselves but your kitten will have no problem chasing them around and making his own fun. The sound and light reflective material will capture all of his senses. Another option for kittens is the simple fluffy mouse. They’re small enough for even young cats to grasp in their mouths and don’t include catnip. There is no point using catnip on your pet until they’re around six months old as they aren’t sensitive to it until adulthood (source).
The best catnip toys
Ah, catnip. I must admit, I think I get more fun out of using catnip on my pets than they do. Sensitivities vary – it’s estimated that 50 – 70% will have a reaction (source). If your cat does like catnip, the experience can be funny to watch. Mine rub their heads and body on the affected area, roll around, drool and try to catch things that aren’t there. So, catnip toys will most definitely catch your cat’s attention.
My favorite catnip toy is this beaver from Kong. It’s refillable so you can replace catnip that’s lost its scent with fresh stuff. The size is also ideal for your cat to grab on to and nuzzle as cats love to do when they’re “high” on catnip. It’s robust and all of the cat toys I have from Kong are great quality. This means it will last a bit longer, even when your cats are biting and scratching it on a regular basis. The design allows you to twist the toy to squeeze more oils from the catnip – so you’re sure to get the best value for money from the catnip you use.
The best electronic cat toys
Cat toys, like everything, have become more high-tech in recent years. If you think that you can use an electronic toy to automatically play with your cat, I disagree. There are many toys available that claim to amuse your cat without any interaction from a human. However, we have tried most of them and our cats aren’t fooled. The movement is too slow and predictable – not erratic like real prey – and kitty loses interest quickly. In addition, they can’t cover as large an area as a human so they’re not the best for exercising your cat.
That said, there are lots of battery operated toys which are pretty cool, as long as they don’t replace human interaction completely. One which I particularly love is the hexbug mouse cat toy. It’s as close as you’re going to get to letting mice run wild in your house for your cats’ amusement.
Another old reliable electronic cat toy is the laser pointer. However, there are a few precautions. My cats kept trying to look for the source so it was simply too dangerous for me to use a laser toy with them. It can easily damage their eyes. Luckily there are LED alternatives which are safe. Also, since your cat can’t physically grab the dot of light at the end of the play period, he can be left feeling frustrated. Make sure to finish this type of play with a physical toy like one of the fluffy mice I’ve mentioned above.
The best cat toys for indoor cats
Play is important for all cats, but especially indoor cats. Indoor cats have limited space to roam and exercise. They rarely get the opportunity to chase prey. Indoor cats with no toys are prone to bad behavior due to boredom. They are also at high risk of obesity and associated illness.
Your indoor cat will most likely have to spend a lot of time alone during the day. It’s vital that they have safe interactive cat toys to keep them busy. The best toys for cats home alone don’t require human input. I don’t like the automatic electronic cat toys so I have found some alternative solutions.
My first selection to keep your indoor cats busy is this simple spring toy. Once your cat gets curious enough to bat at it with a paw, it will roll and bounce away. It will keep your cat entertained until it gets lost somewhere under your sofa!
Of course, you need some variety. One of my absolute favorites that’s guaranteed to engage every cat is the puzzle food dispenser. They are usually maze style toys which the cat must play with to release his dry food. The Senses Food Maze from Catit forces your pet to use his mind if he wants to fill his tummy. This is the best cat toy for bored cats – even if they aren’t that interested in the “game”, they will get hungry and engage eventually.
Another good toy for indoor cats is this play circuit from Catit. As a human, I didn’t find the design all that captivating, but my cats loved it. I think it’s the fact that the ball moves in and out of view as they paw at it, a trick my cats can never resist.
To create the perfect play environment for your cat, you need to create lots of places for them to hide. Tunnels with crinkle fabric emulate the noises of the wild, such as walking on crunchy leaves. Look for one that’s collapsible so your home can go from cat playground to respectable human habit when you have guests over.
Precautions with cat toys
Check your cat’s toys for small parts which could break off and present a choking hazard.
Always put fishing rod and feather toys away when you’ve finished playing. Your cat can get tangled up in the string or swallow feather parts, leading to injury.
If you use a laser pointer with your cat, make sure the cat doesn’t look into the light source as it will damage his eyes.
Don’t use your hands when playing with your cat. Not only will you probably get scratched, you should train your cat to associate your hands with nice things such as petting and feeding.
When providing hiding places for your cat, paper bags work well but never use plastic bags. They are a suffocation risk.