Cat with toy box
Gus investigates a cardboard box with cat toys. Holes cut in the box allow him to pull out the toys.

Giving your cat a chance to play is one of the essentials of a cat-friendly home. In this instance, we are not talking about the social play of affiliated cats – you know, where the cats wrestle and chase each other. This post is about allowing your cat some “hunting practice”.

Giving your cat a chance to play

Object Play

Kittens start to become more interested in playing with objects around 10-14 weeks of age, although they will certainly continue to chase and wrestle with each other. Object play helps develop problem-solving skills they can use in getting food – if they are wild, it will help them hunt. Object play also helps them hone and practice the skills they need to catch prey.

Object play is what it says it is – the cat engages in exploring and manipulating an object. Even if you are holding the “Da Bird” wand, your cat is playing with an object – “Da Bird”. Most of the play that we engage in with our cats is not social play. It is “object play”.

We humans can easily mistake fluttering our fingers and wiggling our feet as invitations to social play with our cats – don’t be fooled: our cats see our hands and feet as objects, and will attack with unsheathed claws and sharp teeth.

Giving your cat a chance to play – toys

Cats are born hunters. In the wild, they spend most of their waking hours seeking food. The object play that they engaged in as kittens helps them pounce and trap mice with their paws.

Crinkly balls, catnip mice, plastic rings – these provide opportunities for exploration and manipulation. Try to arouse your cat’s predatory nature through textures, scents and sounds.  Consider the tactile appeal of the toy – is it mouse-sized?

  • Change toys out regularly to keep kitty’s interest. 
  • “Marinate” sets of toys in plastic boxes with some catnip, silver vine or tartarian honeysuckle sawdust to stimulate your cat’s sensitive sense of smell.
  • Bells and chirping toys can get your cat’s interest.
  • Some cats like pulling toys out of boxes.

Games we can play with cats

When giving your cat a chance to play, mimic how prey moves.  Watch a video on the Internet of mice – they move in short spurts, zigzagging around. 

How to Play the Game

  • If you are using a wand toy like “DaBird”, attach a mouse toy to the clip at the end.
  • Pull it past your cat in spurts; zigzag a little.
  • Avoid flicking the mouse toward the cat – a mouse runs away from a cat!
  • Once your cat grabs the mouse, stay still.
  • He should let up after a while – that’s when the “mouse” makes a run for it and the game is on again.

Giving Your  Cat a Chance to Play – Food Games

Food puzzles elicit foraging behavior from cats. It may take your cat a while to engage in this if he is free-fed. You may want to consider meal- feeding and making puzzle time a meal.

There are many puzzles you can make or buy. Pick one that suits your cat’s personality.

Tossing treats or your cat’s dry food encourages him to use his sight, hearing, and smell to locate the food item. Be sure to include this in his daily calorie count.

If you have more than one cat playing treat toss, assign each cat a “runway”. This will avoid scuffles and ensures that everybody, from young active cats to seniors, successfully hunt down the food.

the emotions of play

Physical play is fun. Your cat enjoys her catnip mouse – it smells good and it is just the right shape and size for her to toss and dance around with. Food puzzles are more like us playing games – they are still fun but depend on some learning and memory. It is still satisfying to get the treat or pull the mouse out of the hole.


Play should be challenging but not impossible to get the prize! If the task is too hard, cats, like people, become frustrated, give up, or may become obsessed with trying to get the unattainable prize.

A recent survey-based study looked at the use of laser light pointers for play and the occurrence of “abnormal repetitive behaviors” linked to feline compulsive disorders. The abnormal behaviors included:

  • chasing lights or shadows
  • staring “obsessively” at lights or reflections
  • spinning or tail chasing
  • fixating on a specific toy

The research team found significant links between frequency of Laser Light Play (LLP) and these behaviors. However, only half of the cat owners surveyed actually used a laser pointer to play with their cats and those that did, spent more time playing with their cats using other toys. (Kogan, L.R.; Grigg, E.K. Laser Light Pointers for Use in Companion Cat Play: Association with Guardian-Reported Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors. Animals 2021,11, 2178.

LLP is thought to be frustrating for cats as they can’t catch the light. In my experience, the laser light is interesting initially and then cats grow bored with it – after all, they can’t catch it.

If your cat enjoys playing with a laser pointer, be sure to end the session with the satisfaction of  catching the prize – direct the light to target a favorite toy or treat.

Using a laser pointer to target a treat
The laser guides Gus to a treat at the end of the play session.

Computer games for cats and videos of mice and birds fall in the same category as LLP. The cat cannot physically catch the prey on the screen and finds this frustrating.  Some comments on these videos often remark that the cat is obsessed with the video!

Giving your cat a chance to play is important for his mental and physical welfare. Engage your cat with toys at the end of a wand or give him the whole body experience of toys he can lick, kick, manipulate and smell. Ditch the computer games and videos – let your cat have the satisfaction of using his touch, scent, vision, and hearing to catch the prize!

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Cats plays with featther toy1
Zelda plays with a feather toy at the end of a wand.

Providing opportunities for predatory play is one of the components of a cat-friendly home. Like people, cats are individuals, with different tastes and experiences. This certainly is one reason for the large variety of cat toys at the pet store. But what if your cat does not want to play?

Some cats like to play more than others

A group of researchers observed the responses of 31 cats to toy balls, a fishing pole style toy with a soft bird shaped toy at the end, and recorded sounds of a chirping bird, a squeaking mouse, crumpled paper and a rustling plastic bag. Thirteen of these cats were indoor-outdoor cats; the remaining 18 were indoor-only cats.

What did they find out?

  • Indoor-only cats touched or played with balls sooner than indoor-outdoor cats.
  • Indoor-only cats started searching earlier for playback sounds (chirping, squeaking etc) than the indoor-outdoor cats.

Why do indoor-only cats like to play more than outdoor cats?

The two groups of cats had close relationships with their owners: the main difference was that one group had access to the outdoors.

The indoor-outdoor cats most likely had experience with actual prey animals. Live prey can “fight back” and cause injury to the hunter, so a slower, more cautious approach may be smarter.  The indoor-only cats don’t “know any better” and showed a more intense interest in and faster response to “simulated prey”, not having had any negative experience with hunting things.

Should I try to play with my indoor-outdoor cat?

Yes, play with your indoor-outdoor cat. Play is part of the regular, positive interactions we have with our cats. The need to hunt defines who your cat is – this is what he was born to do. Although he gets a lot of stimulation while outdoors, a short, regular play time helps reinforce the cat-owner bond.

It may be a bit more difficult to find that thing he’ll play with, compared to an enthusiastic indoor-only cat. 

Cat using food puzzle

My experience with “Gus, A former street cat”

  • Gus has always enjoyed “treat toss” ( I throw dental treats for the cats to chase and eat).
  • He is not interested in the feather and mice toys at the end of a wand.
  •  He occasionally plays with catnip toys and balls.
  • After two years, he has agreed to chase a pair of tied-together shoe laces down the hall and has his own preferred food puzzle.

My indoor-only cat just won’t play with anything

Cats are individuals and some cats like to play more than others. Yes, try to entice your cat to play. It can take longer to find out what some cats will play with. It may take a few tries before they become interested enough to chase that shoelace, mouse toy on a wand or the crumpled ball of paper you throw down the hallway.  If the cat walks away, then try again another day.

  • A play session around the same time everyday lets them know what is going to happen.
  • Be alert to possible frustration – your cat needs some reinforcement intermittently to keep her playing the game.
  • Use the laser pointer to point to a treat when ending the laser tag session.
  • Let her catch the toy on the wand and chew on it occasionally during a play session. 
  • End the play session with a game of “treat toss”.

Playing with more than one cat

Even if cats are not part of the same social group , they can still manage a joint play session. Cats are good at “time-sharing” – taking turns while another cat plays. Often they will have different preferences, so they will wait for “their toy”. Cats are often very willing to wait if there is a treat session at the end (after all, hunting requires patience!)

The importance of predatory play…

It is true that some cats like to play with toys or chase treats more than others.  But every cat has a hunting heritage and helping him use it strengthens the bond between you and your cat.

Tips for playing with cats

Play and Treat time is a meal

  • Cats do better physically and emotionally eating multiple small meals daily.
  • Restricting access to food (meal feeding) can make treat time a bit more special.
  • Include the treats in your cat’s daily calorie count.

Play and treat time – a positive, predictable interaction for your cat

  • Cats like to play with a variety of toys – have several boxes of toys that you rotate.
  • Marinate some of the toys in catnip or silvervine.
  • Play sessions do not need to be more than 5 minutes or so per cat.
  • Put all interactive toys away when playtime is over.

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Cats plays with featther toy1

Keeping active physically has a lot of benefits for people. It helps your mind work better – you learn things more easily. Physical exercise helps increase your muscle mass and strength. It also tends to induce a positive mood or emotional state.

Exercising your cat can give your cat the same boost we get from physical activity. Unfortunately, just like us, it is easy for them to become couch potatoes.

My 16 year old, Athena, is the equivalent of an 80 year old person. She has developed osteoarthritis and chronic kidney disease. To help with the arthritis, I have provided her with steps to get places and litter boxes with lower entrances. This winter I bought her a heated bed which she really likes. I noticed, however, that she was spending an awful lot of time in this bed and not moving around as much.

Although heat increases blood flow and makes connective tissue temporarily more flexible, it also stimulates inflammation and swelling. So some heat is good for comfort but I wanted to reduce the inflammation associated with Athena’s arthritis and cheer her up a bit!

Exercising your Cat – A good Rx

  • Exercise reduces inflammation: Your body’s cells produce proteins called cytokines that regulate immunity and inflammation. Humans with arthritis who exercise produce more cytokines that reduce inflammation. Cells in cat’s bodies produce similar cytokines so exercise can also reduce inflammation in cats.
  • Exercise strengthens the muscles that surround joints making movement easier and less painful.
  • Exercise improves mood, memory, reduces anxiety and helps the GI tract to function better.

The TAKEAWAY: Daily play (exercise) is good for cats of all ages!

Here are some exercises to work into your cat’s daily play time.  Make sessions short and positive and work at your cat’s own pace.

Cat sitting up
Gus sits up on his hind legs.

More Please!:  Holding a treat or toy above your cat’s head, encourage him to sit up with his front feet off the ground for a few seconds. This is good for kitty’s core muscles.

Catch the bird:  A feather toy on a wand can encourage your cat to “stand up”, engaging his core muscles.


Catnip/silvervine Roll: If your cat enjoys catnip or silver vine, by all means indulge her. The catnip response lasts less then 10 min and often involves rolling around, which is good for kitty’s core muscles.

Cat walking on cushions
Athena has to shift her weight and balance to walk across the cushions.

Balancing: Have your cat walk over an uneven surface such as a bed or several pillows. She will need to shift her weight to keep her balance, exercising her legs, core, back muscles and more. She can follow a feather toy, target stick with food on the end or a trail of treats!

Strengthen back legs:  Following a string up the stairs or cat tree will put more weight on the rear legs. Alternate exercise: have kitty stand with his front legs up on some cushions or books so more of his weight is on his rear legs for a few seconds. Start low at first. Pet his head and reward him.

Strengthen front legs: Following a toy or string (slowly) down the stairs or cat tree will put more weight on your cat’s front legs.  Alternate exercise: you can use a soft towel or blanket around her lower belly to lift her hind legs, putting more weight on the front legs for a few seconds.  Start in a stationary position. Work up to going forward. Head rubs and treats will make this fun for your cat!

Cardio! Do a little play with the laser pointer, wand toys or shoelaces. Make sure to put these toys away when the play session is done.

Exercising your cat will help her to be happier and feel better. Less pain and better mood translates to better relationships for your cat with people and other pets! Remember, this does not have to take a lot of time: 10-15 minutes should do the trick!


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Owning a cat does not mean that your arms and legs should be covered in bites and scratches.  Is there anything you can do if your cat gets aggressive when playing?

 First of all – understand “Play” for a cat is hunting practice and it is serious business.

Hardwired to Hunt…

Your cat is good at detecting fast motion – his eyes can process over 60 visual images per second. By comparison, we are able to process 20-30 images per second. Your cat is designed to detect the quick, rapid movements of mice and other rodents. Motion is what attracts him – if the prey “freezes” for long enough, it may get away to live another day.

A successful hunt ends with the capture of the prey. Sharp teeth and claws put an end to the game.

Aggresive play

Why your cat gets aggressive when playing…

It may seem cute to let your kitten climb your legs, and pounce on your hands and feet. When your kitten grows to be a large cat, fully equipped with sharp teeth and claws, this kind of play can be dangerous.

Even if you use gloves and let your cat bite and scratch the gloves, she is still viewing YOU as PREY.  After all, your arms are connected to the rest of you!

Cat bites and scratches easily become infected. Make sure to clean any bites and scratches with plenty of soap and water. Seek medical attention for bites  and scratches that break the skin.

So, you feel your cat gets aggressive while playing.  What can you do when he wants to play rough?

  • Use toys that keep your hands and feet away from him.
  • Don’t play games that have you pretending to be prey – if you want your cat to run after you, drag a string along behind you so that the string, not you, is the focus of his attention. 

    cat with wand toy
    Zelda plays with a toy mouse on a wand toy.

What if your cat initiates “rough play”?

What is happening?

  • Stalking and attacking your legs and feet?
  • Wrestling and attacking your hands?
  • Stalking and pouncing on you or the kids?

When does it happen?

  • When you arrive home from work?
  • When you are working and not able to pay attention to your cat?

Where does it happen?

  • Does the behavior occur in a certain place in the house?


Some examples…

Your cat attacks your legs and feet when you come in the door from work.

  • Have a basket of toys on a table near the door.
  • Direct her attention to a wand toy or catnip mouse BEFORE she starts to attack you.
  • If your cat does manage to complete the pounce, FREEZE – don’t run away, she will “hunt” you

Your cat pounces on you when go through the hallway

  •  This often starts as playing “peek-a-boo” around the corner. It usually goes away on its own, but some more bored cats may make a game of it.
  • Have a cache of toys nearby  or some treats that you toss BEFORE you get to the corner to distract him.
  • Or have a laser pointer in your pocket if this behavior happens at different corners
  • If your cat does manage to complete the pounce, FREEZE.  Do not reward him by acting like a prey animal trying to get away.

Your cat attacks your arm and hands while you are on the sofa watching TV

  • Have a cache of toys on a table next to the sofa
  • If you can intercept your cat before he launches on to the sofa, toss a treat or toy and direct him to it with a laser pointer.
  • If he gets you in a “clawed” embrace, FREEZE.  By not moving,  he should lose interest in you.


A sturdy sheet of cardboard and long pants/sleeves, socks  and gloves can shield your legs, feet and hands during the “re-training” period. “Protective gear” will make staying still a bit easier.

Your cat gets aggressive when playing…Other things you can do.

 Keep your cat busy and happy.

  • Consider meal-feeding her with food puzzles – she can hunt for her food and not you!
  • Have a regular play time around the same time every day.
  • Set up a “safe place” for your cat to go when things are getting too stressful

Planning ahead – Set up a “Safe Place” for your cat

A safe place should be a place your cat feels secure
A safe place should have all her resources in it
It could be a spare room or hallway with the doors closed

Put your cat in her safe place

  • when you are working
  • when there is just too much going on
  • when she becomes overstimulated

Your cat is a superb hunter. Make sure that he does not view you, your hands or feet as prey.  Seek professional help if the simple strategies outlined here don’t work!



The domestic cat is hard wired to hunt. He is good at detecting fast motion – cats’ eyes construct around 60 visual images per second, which is 2x as fast as our human brains. He is ideally suited to detect the quick, rapid motions of the mice and other small creatures that he hunts. Hunting is part of who he is.

When the kittens are about 3-4 weeks old, the mother cat starts to bring back dead, injured or fatigued prey to allow the kittens to practice their hunting skills. Mother Cat will intervene if the kittens lose control of the live prey, otherwise she watches as they develop their hunting skills.

It’s important that we offer our cats an opportunity to engage in predatory (hunting) behavior. How do cats hunt in the wild?

  • Your cat scans the landscape.
  • She sees something moving, and goes over to that spot.
  • She hears and smells MOUSE! 
  • She stalks her prey
  • The mouse scurries away – she chases and pounces!
  • Success! She catches and eats her prize.

We are not going to release live mice into our homes deliberately, so what can we do to allow hunting in the home?

Object (Toys) Play

Playtime or hunting in the home can be interactive or it can be playing alone.

Interactive games – with us

Zelda plays with a toy mouse on a fishing pole toy.
  • Go Fish – fishing pole or wand toys
  • Chasing string
  • Catch the red dot – laser pointers
  • Treat toss – toss treats and let your cat go get them.

Start with short, fast motions to get your cat’s attention, then move to longer runs.

Put all fishing poles, strings and other interactive toys out of kitty’s reach when the play session is done

Playing on their own



Marley works the Poker Box, a food puzzle.
  • Catnip mice
  • Food puzzles
  • Boxes
  • Play Tunnels
A play tunnel for children fits large cats !



How Does Your Cat Feel when Hunting?

Human hunters report feelings of exhilaration while on the “chase”, satisfaction when capturing their quarry and frustration when they miss.
Your cat shares these emotions. Avoid toys that present frustration – they may not be popular for long.

A Frustrating Toy

The mouse squeaks as the cage rolls along but the mouse does not come out!

 I bought a toy with a mouse in a ball-shaped cage. The mouse would squeak as the ball rolled. Marley spent an hour trying to paw the mouse out of the cage without success and then left the toy alone – he had better things to do!

If the mouse in the cage had been a removable food puzzle, Marley would have had the satisfaction of “catching” the mouse and getting a treat.


Avoiding Frustration

The laser guides Gus to a treat at the end of the play session.

Try to end play sessions on a positive note.  Play should be challenging but not impossible to catch the prize! If the task is too hard, cats, like people, will give up.  For example, when using laser pointers, end the session with some “targeting” – direct your cat with the light to treats you have hidden  around the play area.


Interactive Playtime – Communicating with your cat

  • Daily interactive play time is best
  • Short, intense play sessions of 5- 10 minutes often are enough
  • It is best if these are at the same time every day, say after dinner.  This way, your cat knows what is going to happen – the routine is a way for you to communicate with him.

Keeping the hunt alive with “self play” toys



  • Rotate toys every 1-2 weeks
  • “Marinate” toys not in use in a box with catnip
  • Store the week’s toys in a box with an opening so your cat can choose the toys she wants

Cats can also engage in hunting behavior through play with other cats.  Our next blog post will look into “social play among cats”.