My childhood cats didn’t have a lot of toys. For one thing, they lived outdoors in the tool shed, so neither they nor their toys had very long lifespans. Second, there wasn’t a wide variety of cat toys to choose from.
I usually had to settle for a plastic ball with a bell inside or a catnip mouse that the gang shredded within minutes. All of them were poorly made. And most of them were downright unsafe.
“Play is important for cats,” according to Dr. Mark Cousins, DVM, ABVP. “Play teaches cats hunting and stalking maneuvers that are essential in the wild in order to survive.”
But play not only “boosts the confidence” of shy and/or fearful cats, but it also “exercises the mind as well as the body.
Once cats are in play mode, a wad of paper quickly becomes a mouse on the lam; the creature wriggling about in a discarded grocery bag is no longer a fellow fur person but an alien life form that must be pounced upon and subdued. Perhaps this is what author Margaret Benson meant when she wrote, “A cat is, above all else, a dramatist.”
The Many Ways That Cats Play
There are even different modes of feline play. The number of those modes varies, depending on whom you talk to:
This includes roughhousing with litter mates as well as with other pets and you. Kittens begin play-fighting at roughly 4 weeks old with mom refereeing and sometimes joining in. They develop paw-eye coordination, and they learn to keep their baby fangs and claws in check.
The interactive play period supposedly tapers off between 9 and 16 weeks. I’ve handled litters where this wasn’t the case, however: The longer the siblings stayed together, the longer this particular period lasted. And when the kittens went to their forever homes, they simply made new playmates of the cats they found there.
This means playing with toys or anything that can be rolled, clawed or batted off a bureau. Topaz, our Siamese, was fascinated by pens, wrapping his paw around whichever one I was using. He also had a yellow ball that he faithfully carried around and played with until it finally fell apart.
Self-Directed and Locomotory Play
These are 2 modes of play, according to Caraza. The first involves such goofiness as “tail-chasing or pouncing on imaginary objects.” It is a substitute for “social play when a play partner isn’t available.” Locomotory play simply means that “the cat is in motion. That can involve [the] solo play of running and pouncing on imaginary targets or involve others.”
Obviously, these last 2 categories overlap. Perhaps we are better off using the terms “solitary play” and “social play,” remembering that nothing is clear-cut when it comes to cats.
Which Toys Are Best for Your Cat?
Interactive cat toys are great!
Making sure your cat understands that your hands are off-limits, grab that wand or fishing toy and wave it around till he’s leaping like a ballerina.
You can also take a small toy and make it move “like a mouse or a bird,” suggests writer Gary Loewenthal. “Don’t overdo it; subtle moves are quite effective. Vary the speed and direction of the toy.” After all, it’s not just a matter of piquing his interest — it’s a matter of keeping it.
Let your cat set the pace and try different approaches to see what works. For instance, you might consider “dimming the light since cats like to hunt when it’s darker,” Loewenthal says.
My cats have always been in love with laser toys — probably because that red dot is the only thing that moves faster than they do. I am careful to keep the laser-toy sessions short so that they don’t get too hyper.
Safety Concerns About Cat Toys
Ingrid King reviews all sorts of cat-related things on The Conscious Cat, her award-winning blog, including toys. She is conscientious and thorough and has 2 tortoiseshell assistants, Allegra and Ruby.
Her cats get to try out all the toys once they’ve been deemed safe. “Toys need to be well-made from materials that are non-toxic,” says King. “No glued-on pieces, such as eyes or whiskers. We have plenty of ‘blind mice’ at our house because I tear off the glued-on pieces before giving them to the girls. Toys with any type of elastic or rubber band are a no-no.”
She prefers toys “that awaken the prey instinct in cats…that mimic the movement of prey…. I like interactive toys — fishing-pole type toys because they encourage joint play with cats and their guardians.”
She has 1 caveat about those interactive toys, however: Don’t leave them lying around once playtime is over. Cats can get tangled up in the fishing-toy line. Or they can swallow it, causing a potentially fatal blockage.
Keeping Playtime Simple With Your Cat
For many years, I ordered my cat toys from Catnip Corner. The business offered colorful handmade “furries,” “critters” and crocheted spirals at reasonable prices. The furries and critters were stuffed with Grade A catnip. And they were safe.
Sadly, Catnip Corner is no more. But you can easily fashion your own toys out of fabric remnants and catnip as long as you have some basic sewing skills, or check out the toys in our online shop.
Corks, ping-pong balls and golf balls are always popular. Avoid having the ball escape under the sofa by putting it in the bathtub (when the tub is dry). Boxes and paper bags are a big hit, too. Just make sure that any handles have been removed first.
There are a lot of cat-toy possibilities out there. With a little ingenuity, you can make your felines very happy.
This tireless kitten can play all day long:
Play’s the Thing
“Next to sleeping and eating, playing appears to be an essential activity for a cat,” observes Patricia Curtis in her book The Indoor Cat.
She points out that “one of [cats’] greatest assets is that they don’t just sit there waiting for you to find them something to do — they find ingenious ways of amusing themselves.”
Sometimes a cat in search of amusement can come up with some decidedly quirky solutions. Keisha, our dilute tortie, used to bring acorns in from the cat enclosure and bat them under the stove. Eilonwy, a Somali rescue who came through here a few summers ago, fancied pipe cleaners. And my sister-in-law was mortified when she moved a chair and found out that their cat Gloves had been stockpiling some unusual toys of her own — tampon cases.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out and buy toys for your cats. It just shows that cats see the possibilities in all things and are good at playing pretend games.