ALL ABOUT DOGS and CATS Resource Center for Canine & Feline Lovers
Pet Behavior - Feline Behavior
Secrets to Cat Playtime Perfection Revealed
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Pam Johnson-Bennett's two pet cats are a
mother-and-daughter team. But despite the shared genes, the
two felines couldn't be more different when it comes to
preferences at playtime. The mother, Mary, likes to leap into the
air after toys, as if hunting a bird. The daughter, Bebe, prefers
stalking pretend prey on the ground, as if pursuing a mouse.
The one commonality: both cats like to play predator.
"All felines play the same way, whether playing with a speck of dust or a mouse," says
Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of Starting from Scratch:
How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat (Penguin). "They take on the same
posture, slink down, stalk and pounce -- whether it's a tiger on the savanna or the tiger in
your living room."
Domestic cats like to play the way a cat would behave in the wild. This type of play can both
meet a cat's physical and emotional needs. For cats that don't get enough challenging
playtime, life can become boring and lonely -- for them, an incredibly stressful reality -- making
them lethargic and prone to illness.
In order to vary playtime specifically for your cat, there are two types of beneficial predatory
play. Some felines favor ground hunting, while others prefer more aerial pursuits. Here's how
to discover the predator in your furry friend for a positive playtime:
Finding the Inner Ground Hunter
Determining whether a pet prefers to stalk pretend prey on the ground, or in the air, is a
matter of trial and error. See how your pet responds to ground play and aerial games,
suggests Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior specialist at the San Francisco Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA). Some cats -- but not all -- have very distinct
preferences for one type of play or the other, Johnson-Bennett says.
There are right ways and wrong ways, however, to try to coax your pet into pouncing on a
would-be rodent on the ground:
Try a variety of toys Your interactive toys can be homemade or store-bought.
Johnson-Bennett recommends toys on a wire that can spring back and forth. But a balled up
piece of paper and a string might work, as well.
Simulate a variety of ground movements "I always tell clients to think like prey,"
Johnson-Bennett says. "Prey is not moving around wildly in front of the cat. Find a place to
hide the toy and then another place. Use little, quivering movements."
Don't touch your pet with the toy "People are confused when they get an irritated response
rather than a predatory response," Delgado says. "It's very unlikely that any mouse or bird,
for that matter, would walk up to a cat and say, in effect, 'Come and get me.'
Allow your cat to taste success Let them swat the toy with a paw. Allow them to pounce on
the toy first before pulling it away. Little victories serve to build up your pet's confidence,
End on a positive note Let your feline experience the thrill of victory. It will make them want to
play again. You may want to end your play with a meal or treat -- a reward they would get in
There are some cautions, experts say. Don't use a hand or other body part as the pretend
prey, warns Suzanne Hetts, an animal behaviorist in Littleton, Colo. who runs Helping Kitty,
because you could end up getting hurt and confusing kitty when you use that same hand to
try to stroke your pet. Also, never leave the cat alone on the ground with a string toy because
they could swallow it and end up wreaking havoc on their digestive systems, Delgado says.
Identifying a Feline that Favors Aerial Hunting
If ground play doesn't engage your kitty, go airborne with your toys. Aerial play is often for the
more athletic feline who likes to leap up, jump onto furniture and sometimes do flips in the air.
Here are steps to create an inviting aerial hunting game for your cat:
Give kitty a warm up Little jumps are good before progressing to full-blown aerial leaps,
Delgado says. Try toys attached to a pole or wire They can allow you to simulate quick,
Think like a bird A bird would not be in flight all the time, Johnson-Bennett says. "It lands on
the ground. Walks a bit. Flies around again and walks again."
Let your cat climb You may not like to encourage your cat to jump up on the table, but
climbing up a cat condo to get a better look at the prey might be fun and provide more
Let kitty reap rewards Allow your cat to catch its prey. As with ground-hunting, it gives your
pet confidence to get their paws on the play toy every now and then. You may want to end
with a food reward.
Once you discover which type of "hunter" your pet is, you can work to keep playtime active
and help your feline's overall health. Also, be sure to put the special toys away between play
times. "Leave out the balls and furry mice," Johnson-Bennett says. "But the interactive toys
are special and shouldn't be handing around -- just as mice and birds aren't always hanging
Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about
pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed
down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book
Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.
In 50 Games to Play with
Your Cat, discover a
complete compendium of
games appropriate for cats
of all ages and activity
levels. The simple
instructions make each
game easy to set up and
play in as little as 10 to 15
minutes. The book features
activities that challenge
your cat both mentally and
physically, helping to
satisfy her instinctive
hunting skills while keeping
her fit and happy. Many of
the exercises utilize items
often found lying around
the house, such as empty
boxes or shopping bags
and even soap bubbles. It
also includes expert tips
that explain your cat's
playful behavior and shows
you how to coax a cautious
cat into play or calm an
For the cat owner who
wants to help his or her
pet stay active and
engaged, 50 Games to Play
with Your Cat offers
enjoyable game ideas that
are appropriate for all ages
and activity levels of both
cat and owner.
50 Games to Play
With Your Cat by