One of the great joys of bringing home a new cat, especially a young one, is getting to play with her. These times of play are very important for your cat. They help establish her new home as happy and comfortable, creating a bond between you. Playtimes give her an acceptable outlet for her innate hunting instincts and a much-needed way to release energy.
Scheduling playtime depends somewhat on your cat's preferences. However, a good rule of thumb is to play first thing in the morning, when she's happy to see you wake up, and last thing at night, so she won't be so insistent on a playtime in the middle of the night. In between, try playing before mealtimes, since part of play is learning what you consider to be acceptable behavior in your house (see Techniques, below), and the meal can then be used as a reward. If you work outside the home, be sure to play with your cat as soon as you come home - she misses you when you're gone. Ten to fifteen minutes per session is usually enough for your cat. If she seems to lose interest, end the playtime earlier.
Games to Play
Any game that indulges your cat's need to hunt is a good one. Some examples are:
- Tossing a small ball or stuffed mouse across the room for her to stalk
- Dangling a toy on a string so she can bat and pounce at it
- Using a bubble-maker to amaze your cat (bubbles are very intriguing targets that disappear without a sound when she catches them)
While encouraging your cat to sharpen her hunting skills, make sure an inanimate object is the prey. Don't use your hands or feet as the target or she'll think it's okay to nip at your fingers.
Techniques to Encourage Play
Believe it or not, your cat may not know how to play, or how to play in a safe and acceptable way. As soon as she arrives in your home, help your pet learn the essentials of fun:
- Find a safe place. If you have to constantly say "no" because your cat is endangering herself or damaging the furniture, play won't be enjoyable for her.
- Get down on the floor with her. Even though you're still bigger than she is, she'll notice that you're getting down to her level, and she'll see you as more of an equal playmate.
- Build it into your day. Cats love routine, and a regular playtime will be something you can both look forward to. It doesn't have to be at exactly the same time each evening, but as long as it's right before dinner, she'll be ready.
- If your cat is interested in playing with things that are off-limits (batting the drapery cord or climbing the drapes), offer replacements for the same kind of play. Put up a climbing pole with toys on different landings or dangling from a string. Catch her attention by giving the toy a push - she'll dash right over and begin playing, and your drapes will be safe.
- Pay attention to your cat's signals. If she wants to play, she'll let you know. If you try to force her to play when she doesn't want to, you might find your cat has some aggressive ways of telling you. Don't push it if she doesn't feel like playing.
- Teach while you play. By playing gently with your cat, she'll learn to play gently with others. If she starts extending claws, take her paw (gently!) in your hand and stroke the soft underside of it while repeating a catch phrase like "soft paw, soft paw." The claws will retract and with repetition your cat will learn not to extend her claws during play.
Things to Watch For
Cats love to play, and they'll play with or without you (with you, of course, is their first preference!). However, not all play is equal; some kinds of play are more desirable than others, and some play is downright dangerous or destructive. Keep an eye out for these potential problem areas.
- Rough play. Sometimes cats, kittens in particular, are so rough-and-tumble that it seems logical to respond in kind. If you engage in roughhousing, she may become overly excited and start acting aggressively by biting or scratching. She may also become fearful of you and avoid you at all times, not just at playtime.
- Destructive behavior. It's true that your cat won't see the difference between chewing on a cat toy and chewing on an electrical cord, but don't assume that it's just something you have to put up with. Teach her the difference, using redirection or aversion techniques.
- Sudden changes in play behavior. If your cat has been a good playmate and suddenly begins playing aggressively or withdraws from playing altogether, something is wrong. Take her to the veterinarian first to rule out medical problems, then take a look at the environment. Cats don't suddenly change behavior without cause, so it's up to you to help her resolve whatever is bothering her.
By giving your cat your time and attention, you show her you love her. By teaching her which kinds of play are acceptable and which kinds are not, you create a harmonious home life for everyone.