By engaging in playtime with your cat, you’re helping your little hunter get his kill, reduce boredom, and spend quality time with one someone he considers pretty important!
If you’re the owner of a cat or had the honor of sharing the same territory with one, you may have encountered one of the following scenarios:
Scenario 1: As you walk down the stairs to the basement, minding your own business and probably thinking about changing over the laundry, it happens. Out of nowhere, you’re the victim of a carefully executed attack by your fluffy feline as your legs get swatted and clawed. You exclaim in surprise as the cat tears off around the corner, no doubt setting himself up for his next victim.
Scenario 2: You’re sitting on the couch watching television, once again minding your own business, when the cat jumps up on the coffee table. He waits until you’ve established eye contact and slowly reaches out a paw towards the nearest knickknack and proceeds to push it off the table. You scold him and he races off as you seriously consider removing anything of value of the elevated flat surfaces of your house.
Scenario 3: Even though you have regular mealtimes and are feeding your cat the recommended amount of food, he always seems hungry. The more food that you place down, the more he eats and it’s getting to the point that he’s becoming obese. You’ve put down cat toys and even flailed a toy in front of his face and the look of boredom on his face tells you he couldn’t care less.
What is the common denominator in all three of these scenarios? In each case, the cat is not behaving in an acceptable way from a behavioral or health perspective. The root cause in each scenario boils down to one simple thing: your cat needs to play! And if you’re not going to help direct the play to an acceptable behavior, he’s going to figure out a way to meet that need whether you approve of his new hobby or not.
Wand Toys, Puzzles, and You – The Importance of Play in Your Cat’s Life
The cat is often characterized as aloof and unengaged. While some cats are more affectionate than others, they all have the same innate drive to engage with their world in the same way their wild ancestors did. Unlike the dog, which split from the wolf species at least 15,000 years ago, the cat has really only made their presence on the domestic scene for the last 3,600 years. Dogs have been bred for thousands of years to enhance specific traits that include physical appearance, job functions, and temperament. The history of cat breeding has largely focused on physical appearance with little regard to enhancing certain behavioral traits. Apart from looks, this means that our cat companions are really no different than their African wildcat cousins.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Wild and feral cats spend a large proportion of their time hunting. Cats are biologically driven to hunt which includes – staring at the prey to identify patterns, stalking, chasing, grabbing, pouncing, and biting. The sequence is finished when the cat performs the final kill bite and either sits down to his meal or moves on to his next victim. Cats don’t always hunt just to feed themselves and may engage in the sequence just because they’re bored. So there’s nothing in the house to hunt? No problem, your cat will settle for you or any other animal in the house.
How do we give our cats the opportunity to engage in the hunting experience without letting a mouse, rabbit, or bird loose in the house? One of the best ways to engage a cat physically, mentally, and emotionally is through play. When we engage our cat's predatory instinct through the use of toys, we’re fulfilling the genetic drive to stalk, bite, and kill while giving them access to one of their favorite companions – You!
The Wand Toy
A great way to engage a cat in play is through the use of a wand toy, which is a slim pole with a string that attaches to a large selection of prey options. Some options for prey include feathers that flutter through the air or sparkly strings that make noise as they dance about. When using a wand toy don’t just fling it in your cat's face. In the wild, prey never runs straight toward your cat, and if it did there’s probably something wrong with it! Engage the cat as if the toy was real prey by wriggling it on the floor in random patterns or moving from surface to surface. The cat will often start by staring at the new prey as he’s trying to figure out where it will go next. From there, he’ll slowly stalk or chase the prey and begin making attempts to swat or bite. The play sequence is done when the cat has delivered the final kill bite signaling he’s ready for his meal or ready to take a rest.
Taking the time to engage in this kind of play with your cat will help redirect some of his negative “play” behaviors to activities that you find more acceptable and far less destructive. By allowing the cat to expend this type of energy on an acceptable target, you may reduce the number of sneak attacks on both yourself and other pet members of your family. The cat is getting to spend time with you and you get the opportunity to enjoy a few minutes as your cat demonstrates his hunting prowess.
In Scenario 3, it appears that the cat is just lazy or uninterested in playing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. First, when we fling a toy in a cat's face or leave an inanimate object on the floor, it doesn’t really engage the cat’s instincts to hunt and kill. Second, when a cat doesn’t have the opportunity to perform the hunting sequence, he may turn to the food sitting in his bowl to fill that need. In this case, he’s not sure what he needs but instinctually knows that eating is one part of the equation.
The use of a food puzzle allows the kibbles or treats to rattle around requiring him to engage with the toy in order to get the “prey.” As the cat works the puzzle, he’s satisfying the desire to stalk and use his mind to figure out a way to get to the prey. When the food or treat is finally worked free from the puzzle he delivers the final kill bite and gets a tasty snack. If your cat is already obese you can place some or all of their evening meal in the puzzle.
Other toys should be kept in the environment so that your cat can engage with them as he sees fit. A stuffed mouse dipped in catnip, a sparkly ball, or a plastic spring toy are all acceptable toys to leave out so that your cat can engage in play at any time. Rotate these toys and your cat will be delighted by the ever-changing variety that appears in his environment. These toys by themselves don’t always give your cat the stimulus that he needs. By engaging in playtime with your cat, you’re helping your little hunter get his kill, reduce boredom, and spend quality time with one someone he considers pretty important!