Paws at Play. The Art of Playing with Cats

Paws at Play. The Art of Playing with Cats

Playtime for our feline friends can be considered an art form.

By Emma Leeke

Playtime for our feline friends can be considered an art form.  

These intelligent, stubborn and graceful creatures are not of a mind to indulge in simple, dutiful play.  For most cats, the idea of mindlessly chasing an airborne ball with the aim of dutifully returning it to sender, would be met with either puzzlement or sheer disdain. I often wonder what my cat’s thought process is, as they watch their canine housemate Poppy engage in this type of obedient play with me.  I sense ridicule and boredom as their eyes narrow watching us, before yawning and settling down for a nap.

There may be exceptions, but after years of cat parenthood, I feel fairly confident stating that playtime with cats requires finesse, thoughtfulness, and precise execution to entertain them. And even with our best efforts, their participation remains firmly at their discretion (or whim!), firmly dictated by their wishes, and definitely 100% on their own terms.

I know. Would you expect anything else of our majestic and mercurial friends?
However, despite their inherent fickleness, if we take the time to get to know our cats and discover  what stimulates, entertains, ignites and inspires them - we do get to see that  behind their occasional aloofness and standoffish demeanour lies a gentle and playful spirit.  

Play is a crucial aspect of a cat's life, especially as a kitten where they learn essential life skills for navigating the world around them. And as adults, play is what keeps our feline friends fit and healthy, alert and active whilst also providing a sense of comfort and wellbeing.  
If you’re curious how to build a strong and loyal bond between you and your cat through play, read on!


Understanding the Playtime Preference

Whether cats enjoy solitary play, interactive sessions, or a combination of both, there's no universal approach to playtime that applies to all cats.  Just like their hunting preferences vary — some prefer catching mice over lizards, while others may excel at catching birds rather than moths — each chat has their own play preferences. 
To make playtime engaging and rewarding (for both of you) it’s really important to get to know and understand your cat’s individual play preference.  

There are four types of play styles, each of which is usually taught to a kitten by its mother and littermates, by the time it’s 8-12 weeks old:

  • Birding:  Leaping into the air, catching prey mid-flight with their front paws
  • Pouncing/Stalking: Stealthily pursuing bugs or springing into the air to snatch flying insects
  • Bunny Games: Playfully wrestling a toy whilst on their backs, kicking out their hind legs 
  • Hide and Seek: Masters of ambush, lurking under beds to surprise attack unsuspecting feet

How can you incorporate the different styles of play at home?

The lure of a lure…

To ignite your cat’s birding instincts, nothing beats the thrill of a well-cast lure (aka something dangling from a string!). Cats are lifelong enthusiasts of chasing a lure, and adding a variety of treats to the mix can keep them captivated for hours. Using an inexpensive fishing rod to cast a "bait" allows you to engage your cat from a distance, offering a more exhilarating experience than simply dangling something in front of them.

But what should you cast? Flies made from feathers and fabric, or using their favourite soft toy.  A catnip-stuffed ball or a piece of silver vine can take the excitement to new heights. A small sensory fish that wriggles when touched will certainly deliver a great dopamine hit as your cat leaps to land it!
Experiment with varying the lure's level and pace. When it pauses, your cat may freeze in anticipation before resuming full chase mode once it's in motion again. Running it along the floor or holding it above your cat's head provides a full aerobic workout. Leave it on a chair back or hang it from a door for an element of surprise that cats adore.

This playful exercise isn't just fun—it's also beneficial for your cat's health. Let them win occasionally though, there is some ego at play here so to maintain their interest and enthusiasm a win here and there is highly recommended!

A Room With a View

Cats can't resist a good window seat! Despite their cool persona, they're secret admirers of the world outside. While they might enjoy the occasional passerby, their ultimate thrill is a lush, green view—complete with dancing plants, swaying trees, and of course, the piece de résistance, sightings of birds and squirrels.
Since they're the ultimate nosey neighbours, keeping the windowsill clear for their comings and goings will earn you major brownie points. Make sure their path to window-watching is clutter-free and safe from breakables. No windowsill? No problem! If you can set up a special table/perch at window level, it'll become their go-to hangout in no time.

Fear not if you're urban set, struggling to provide that picture-perfect natural scene.  There is always Cat TV to consider!  YouTube now has a lineup of programmes dedicated to our whiskered pals, featuring a cast of chirping birds, scurrying rodents, and mesmerising fish. Opinion is divided on this but if it keeps them entertained, why not roll with it - just make sure you integrate some birding into their routine to keep those extra lbs from creeping on!

Cats are connoisseurs of movement, savouring every detail outside the window that we might overlook. Let them soak up the sights and sounds— for them, it's the best show in town!

Tunnel Tactics: Let the Games Begin!

Cats have a soft spot for tunnel hideouts as they are perfect for launching surprise attacks! Cats simply adore the cozy seclusion tunnels provide—perfect for stealthy observation or a quick getaway. The rustling sound of nylon adds to the appeal, and many tunnels are suitable for indoor and outdoor use. Take playtime to new heights by teasing your cat with a lure outside the tunnel, enticing your feline friend into full ambush mode! For an extra sensory thrill, sprinkle some catnip inside and watch them go wild with delight. 

Tunnels are the perfect hideaway for a catnap and are a durable upgrade from ordinary cardboard boxes. So, whether they're napping, playing, or plotting their next pounce, tunnels are a surefire hit with our feline friends! 
When it comes to tunnel choice, opt for a collapsible nylon fabric version with reinforced rings for long-lasting enjoyment. These are not only easy to store and relocate but also offer endless possibilities for creative play. Look for tunnels with side and top openings, ideal for sneak peeks and covert manoeuvres. Longer tunnels, around 4 meters, provide ample space for extended play sessions. Some even come with connectors to expand the fun!


Now you see it, now you don’t

Gloves with elongated fingers and pom-poms are a cat's delight—hand-to-paw play at its best! See them as lightweight armour, protecting your hands from unwanted scratches during those more spirited play sessions with your feisty furball! To initiate play when first using the gloves, leave them casually on the side for your cat to explore. When they've settled in, slip them on and let your cat come to you. Once they're comfortable, the fun begins! If your cat starts to claw too much, gently push back—it's a reversal of typical prey behaviour, and your cat is more likely to release.

To change things up, attach strings creating lures to your gloved fingers and trailing them along the floor. Your cat will be captivated by the movement and will be stalking and pouncing galore! Try holding your hands high, encouraging your cat to stretch and leap for playful ambushes. Or hide them under a rug and surprise your cat as they pass by. Play at your cat's pace to avoid scratches that usually arise from lightning-quick mood changes. Remember to keep the interaction gentle and enjoyable for both of you. 

Whatever your cat play preference is, remember that whether you're engaged in a spirited game of hide-and-seek or indulging in a round of feathered frenzy, these bond-building moments between you and your feline friend will be sure to encourage lots of purrs of contentment which will ultimately strengthen the bond between you both.

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