Most cat parents hardly need another reason to play with their furry friends, but the benefits of playtime for cats are manifold.
Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and author of “Naughty No More! Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement,” says that hunting is in a cat’s DNA. Most types of indoor play, she adds, give cats an outlet to act instinctually, releasing dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical.
To that end, play is also a huge stress reliever, says certified cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson. “There isn’t a better way to get the ants out of their pants,” she says. “If we don’t give them an outlet or the tools they need to release that stress, they can suffer behavior, emotional or even physical consequences.”
If your feline is starting the feel the seven-year itch with his old feather on a string, maybe it’s time to rethink your playtime strategy. Try these “toys” made with items already lying around the house and let your cat have some good, clean fun.
A cat’s normal body temperature is somewhere between 100 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit, Johnson says. Because cardboard is an insulator, boxes are great places for cats to both explore and feel cozy. Throw a couple pieces of kibble into one and you’ve got a great foraging activity to keep your cat busy.
Make the simple cardboard box even more appealing by partially filling it with fallen leaves. “Cats love the smell of the outdoors, as well as the unfamiliar texture,” Johnson says. This toy is obviously limited by geography and time of year, but it’s a fun one if and when you can make it work.
Krieger says it’s essential to cut any handles off of this potential toy before letting your cat play with it, but when you do, there’s no limit on how to make a paper bag engaging and interesting. Cut the bottom off and make it a tunnel, or put multiple such bags out and let your cat run wild. You could also leave the bottom on and put some food in it for a treasure hunt.
A small percentage of cats will grow very attached to a specific toy, says Krieger. She adopted a kitten, Olivia, at just six weeks old and the small stuffed animal in Olivia’s mouth that day is one she plays with daily—thirteen years later. “I never rotate that toy out. She gets very stressed when it’s not there.”
Cats can be introduced to stuffed animals later in life and still grow similarly attached. Just make sure it isn’t one with small eyes or other hard pieces that can be chewed off and swallowed.
Ping Pong Balls
These are great because they move fast, are difficult for your cat to capture and are big enough that he can’t swallow them. Krieger says they’re especially fun for your cat around stairs, and that chasing them up and down will give him a nice bit of exercise.
A Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Roll
One of Johnson’s specialties is creating cat food puzzles for cats, which stimulate a cat’s mind as well as satisfy his thirst for hunting. Create a homemade food puzzle easily with a few cardboard items you’d normally toss away. Tape a couple of paper towel or toilet paper rolls together, then put a piece of food in the middle and watch what happens next.
You can get as creative as you want, Johnson says, and try forming a sort of pyramid with the rolls, poking small holes in the middle of the rolls to form a treat dispenser, or standing them up tall and seeing if your cat can fish the food out with his paws. The possibilities are endless.
This is a great toy to leave out for your cat while you’re away or at work because there aren’t any pieces that can break off and become choking hazards. Pour some catnip in the sock and tie the open end closed to make it smell appealing, or, if you haven’t done laundry recently, just give it to him as is, Johnson says. The smell of you, his parent, will comfort him during the hours you’re not around.
Most cats tire of most toys fairly quickly – just like children. Both Krieger and Johnson suggest rubbing old toys with your cat’s favorite treat to make it seem newer and more appealing.
Try putting the toy in a plastic freezer bag with some catnip or an herb like dried valerian root or honeysuckle, Johnson says. “It’s like Shake ‘n Bake,” she added, “and when they’re reintroduced to the toy, it’s novel again.”
John Gilpatrick is a freelance writer who thinks bunnies make the best pets.