A guide to perfect cat play, enrichment and overstimulation.
Cats are naturally curious, intelligent creatures that need daily mental and physical stimulation. Creating an enriching environment is important for our feline friends but so is the way we play with them. Many of us have experienced the cat who scratches as you pet them and may not realize that this has an important link to appropriate play. But before we delve into that topic lets first discuss aspects relating to cat play:
Play is important to cats of all ages. In kittens, play helps increase coordination, balance and physical development and teaches them the necessary “hunting” skills for adulthood. When kittens play with each other it also improves their communication and social skills. In adults, play helps to reduce boredom and decreases stress and frustration by allowing the cat to exhibit their natural predatory behaviour. This in turn, will reduce potential behavioural problems such as scratching, biting and spraying. As play is essentially exercise it will also help to keep your cat fit and healthy and decrease the risk of illness such as diabetes.
Before I began working with cats I would never have guessed that there are different toys available for cats of different ages. If you have a toy that was once your kitten’s firm favourite only now been discarded in adulthood you may wonder why the change? Put simply, adult cats favour toys that mimic the erratic movements of real life prey such as birds or mice, where as kittens are attracted to anything sparkly and noisy.
Toy choice also varies greatly depending on your cats own unique personality. I have had foster cats that go crazy for a feathery fishing rod toy, others that like hide-and-seek type games while another may simply prefer a ball of scrunched up paper. The process is often a case of trial and error until you find your cats preferred play style.
Apart from the usual feathers, balls and mice, toys that double as food puzzles are also a great way to increase your cats mental stimulation. For an overweight cat hide their kibble around the house or use a puzzle feeder to increase their movement which will aid weight loss.
Toys can be bought from your local pet store but also feel free to get creative with various household items that can be made in to interactive toys. We’ve all spent money on expensive cat toys only to find our cat lying in the box it arrived in!
Another way to increase the enrichment in your cat’s life is by providing multi-tiered perches in the form of shelves or tall climbing trees. Cats are naturally curious so having a high place where they can observe their domain provides mental stimulation and also offers them a safe, high space if they feel overwhelmed. As mentioned in my previous post, having an appropriately sized cat scratching post that allows your cat to fully stretch while scratching is also vitally important. Purchase a small kitten sized scratching post for your adult at your peril (and at the peril of your curtains and carpet!)
Catnip is a member of the mint family. It effects 50% of cats (due to a genetic sensitivity) that makes itself obvious when your kitten is between 3-6 months old. The effect of catnip varies depending on the cat and whether it was been ingested or smelled. For some the herb results in a calm, blissful state while others may become overly playful. The effect usually lasts 10-15 minutes before your kitty returns to planet Earth again. Catnip can be a great aid in encouraging play from a nervous or lazy cat and can even be rubbed on scratching posts to make them more appealing. However, in some cats catnip can cause aggression and should not be given. Even for calm cats, catnip should only be given as an occasional treat to avoid habituation to the herb.
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog the curious case of the cat who suddenly turns to scratch or bite while you are petting them. You may walk away from the experience feeling hurt and confused (WHY DON’T THEY LOVE ME??) - we’ve all been there. So why does this happen in the first place? The answer lies in the term overstimulation.
Overstimulation may be caused by a variety of factors such as over petting, frustration at seeing something unattainable (such as a bird in a tree), environmental stress and learned behaviour. Play can help to reduce stress and frustration by providing an energy outlet and a way to exhibit natural behaviour. However, when done wrong, play can increase your cats sensitivity to overstimulation. The problem is two-fold:
(a) Hands are NOT toys:
Using your hands to play or rough-house with your cat is particular common when cats are young kittens with small teeth and claws. But cats grow and so do their weapons! A once cute kitten biting on your hand is now a fully-fledged adult that can inflict nasty wounds. Using your hands as toys increases the likelihood that your cat will see them as play things to pounce on at the slightest movement and so when you are trying to pet them the presence of your hands will get cause excitement to play and decrease their tolerance to being touched.
(b) Chill out time:
Many people mix play and petting giving their cat mixed signals. If a cat is in “play mode” they do not want to sit still to be fussed. It is best to fuss your cat before a play session or allow at least a 30 minute cool-down period after a play session has finished before petting them. This will avoid confusion and ensure that your cat is nice and calm before petting them.
By following steps (a) and (b) you will reduce the chance of your becoming overstimulated and developing into a cat that does not like to be touched. However, having said this, some cats are naturally less tolerant to being touched than others in the same way some people are “huggers’ while others would rather run a mile! But the bottom line is not to yell at your cat if they act out as this will make them more wary of you. Cats give subtle signs (dilated pupils, a swishing tails, rippling of skin on the back) that they are growing uncomfortable being touched so becoming familiar with these signs will help to reduce any unpleasant altercations.
Things to remember…
- As mentioned above, DIY cat toys can be a fun and cost effect alternative to store bought toys but please make sure there are no small, detachable parts that could be easily swallowed by your cat.
- Most cats love to chase string, twine, ribbon or hair ties but these should avoided. Many cats will swallow these items which can get wrapped around the intestines causing all kinds of trouble and a very expensive vet bill!
- Just like that exercise bike sitting in the corner of your bedroom acting as an overpriced clothes horse, cats get bored by the sight of the same toys day after day. The best way to keep your cat interested is to have a box of toys that you can rotate every few days.
- Keep play sessions short but have a few throughout the day as this mimics a cats normal activity pattern.
- In order to avoid your cat becoming frustrated during play allow your cat to win and catch the toy every so often as this mimics the outcome of hunting in the wild. If your cat enjoys laser toys use food treats as a reward at the end of the game as this will make your cat feel like they have captured their prey!
- Young cats generally need more time to play than older cats and may not want as much fuss and petting so do not force any interactions as this will cause your cat to become wary of you.
- Many cats have outdoor access but this depends largely on their setting. Outdoor access provides a world of natural stimulation and exercise but also comes with inherent dangers: predators, cars etc. If your cat is ‘indoor only’ please make sure that they are getting extra play and mental stimulation to compensate for an indoor lifestyle.
Disclaimer: the information given in this blog reflects the personal opinions of the author only and should not be used as a substitute for the information given by a veterinarian or behaviourist.