Cats Need to Play—and Prey: Pillar 3 of a Healthy Environment

Jun 11, 2018 / Behavior

[cat playing with toy]

You are your cat’s main source of entertainment

Recently, the American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine issued guidelines enumerating the five pillars of a healthy feline environment. Providing a cat with a comfortable environment is linked to better physical, emotional, and behavioral health.

Pillar 3 of the healthy feline environment is to provide your cat with the opportunity to play and engage in predatory behavior.

Contrary to the popular belief that cats are lazy creatures who sleep most of the day, cats can be very active hunters and adventurers. Cats that live outdoors often spend a significant amount of their time searching for and hunting small prey, particularly rodents.

While keeping cats indoors protects them from traffic accidents, infectious diseases, and predators—as well as protects native wildlife from cats!—living exclusively indoors also causes boredom and increases the risk for certain conditions, such as obesity. Thankfully, there’s a lot that you can do to help alleviate your cat’s boredom and help him stay fit at the same time.

Play (Chase and) Catch

A great way to encourage predatory play is to provide your cat with toys expressly designed for that. Common options include wand-style toys, such as the Cat Dancer, balls, or mice that he can chase and catch. There are even motorized interactive toys that simulate the movement of small animals.

Play for Time (Every Day)

Schedule daily playtime with your cat. If your cat lives exclusively indoors, you are his main source of entertainment. Cats don’t need long play sessions—a few minutes at a time will do—but they do benefit from consistency. Select a time in your daily schedule when you know you’ll have a few minutes to play with your cat and stick with it.

Cats also appreciate novelty. Rotate your cat’s toys every one to two weeks, storing the toys that aren’t in use out of sight. When you bring them back into rotation, it’ll be like they are brand-new again!

Play with Your Food

Make mealtimes interactive. There are many options for accomplishing this that can be modified to suit each individual cat’s needs. While some cats appear to enjoy eating out of toys such as the Indoor Hunting Feeder, others do best playing a game of hide and seek, where small portions of food are hidden around the home for the cat to find.

And if you have a DIY bent, you can repurpose common household items, such as cardboard tubes or egg cartons, as cat feeding toys. If your cat eats exclusively canned cat food, Kong toys and activity boards are great options. Get creative and figure out which your cat appears to enjoy.

Please note that no matter which route you pick to make mealtimes more interactive, you’ll need to transition your cat from eating out of a bowl gradually. It may take several weeks for him to get the hang of hunting for his food. Monitor your cat’s food intake closely throughout this process, as some cats—especially overweight cats—can become very sick if they don’t eat on a regular basis.

Start by using a small portion of his daily meal for the interactive mealtime and offer the rest of the food in his dish as usual. As your cat becomes a successful cat-food hunter, you can increase the amount food used for interactive eating and decrease the amount offered a bowl, until he is eating exclusively out of the toys.

—Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, DACVB
Veterinary Behavior at Illinois

Photo from Pixabay