How Cats Play

We’re smack-dab in the middle of Happy Cat Month, so it only makes sense to talk about how cats play. My cat Seren has no off-switch and has been a cat-play maniac since the moment she entered my home. In my experience, adult cats fall into two very broad, general categories—ankle-rubber play fanatics, and kitty lounge acts that love lap-time naptime. Seren’s current most favorite game is tormenting the dog, although at age 15 she has mellowed a bit.

Kittens are in a class by themselves. They can turn kitten games into a blood sport, technically termed play aggression. But overall, cat play is great entertainment—for cats and for humans. In fact, play keeps cats healthy both emotionally and physically. There’s even some method to the furry madness.

How Cats Play

Kitten development can be measured by the types of games they play. Earliest games are self-play with paw-waving belly-up postures similar to human infants enthralled by fingers and toes.

Object play develops as soon as the baby can paw pat, bite or toddle after objects. Everything is a potential toy for your kitten. Sound and motion stimulate interaction, so choose toys that easily move and/or make noises for the best games.

Locomotory play means games that involve movement. These can be kitten solo games with objects or invisible targets, the baby’s own tail, or even involve others.

Self-directed play includes tail chasing or pouncing on imaginary objects. Once the baby matures a bit, the self-directed games tend to go away unless the kitten is bored with no playmate around.

Social Play means plays nice with others—or not so nice. By the time a kitten reaches four weeks of age, they practice the stalk and pounce techniques, learn to grapple and bunny kick with rear paws, and boxer-slap with claws withheld. Games of tag complete with leaps and hops, tippy-toe gaits, inhibited bites and arched-back Halloween cat poses allow cats to practice all the posturing useful in playtime and real cat life. Play fighting is a favorite kitten game that also targets owners, and even adult cats continue to indulge, but social play peaks at 9-16 weeks of age, and decreases thereafter as the cat matures.

8 Reasons Cats Play

Scientist used to say play (in people and pets) served as a method for youngsters to practice grown-up skills they’d need as adults. But they noticed that animals—just like people—continue the games even when they don’t serve that evolutionary purpose. After all, I provide Seren’s meals, and she has no kittens to feed, so there’s no need for her to practice “hunt and kill” games to prepare for putting mice on the table. Some argued that adult cats play as an outlet of frustrated hunting instinct, but even feral cats and wild kitty species play once they grow up. In fact, there’s an entire laundry list of why cats play.

  • Playing with each other teaches tooth and claw limits. Kittens learn that biting hurts, and the games stop.
  • Play refines paw-swat coordination, tones muscles, and trims down tummy flab.
  • Kittens learn consequences through play. Interaction with objects teaches them about the world, and that paw-swats make toy mice jump.
  • Play strengthens social bonds. It builds friendships between pets, and between you and your cat.
  • Play demonstrates to fearful cats that interaction with a human is fun, for example, and encourages trust. Cats can’t be scared when their brain is dialed into fun, so play helps change feline attitude toward strange new people or places, like the vet clinic.
  • The “five o’clock zoomies” where cats run laps around the house, or decide to bunny-kick a stuffed toy into submission, is an outlet for stress and tension. Play provides legal targets for hissy fits, and can keep revved-up felines from destroying furniture or nailing your ankles.
  • Play increases kitty confidence when the cat attacks and successfully captures the toy. Stress and fear predispose cats to more health challenges, so think of play therapy as emotional health insurance that builds your cat confidence quotient.
  • Cats must use it or lose it—both their bodies and brains. Play exercises both and can even reduce the incidence for feline Alzheimer’s.

Play isn’t all fun and games for cats, or for their humans. Life’s too short to stress all the time. Play, simply put, is good for us and our cats. Seren takes her job as a stress-buster very seriously, and I’m grateful for the smiles.

Happy Happy Cat Month! What’s the most amusing game your feline friend plays?