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How to Play with a Kitten

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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As you lie in bed, snug under the covers, your kitten stalks your right leg, quietly, stealthily, like a ninja. You make the faintest move – no more than a quiver really – and in a split second she leaps onto your calf. How can your kitten be so adorable and such a holy terror at the same time?

If she's between 3 and 6 months old, such intense play is normal: It is up to you to properly hone and direct her seemingly boundless energy. When properly fed and in good health, kittens between 3 weeks of age and one year old have an intense urge to play. Their lives at this stage revolve around playing, sleeping, and eating, and they engage in these behaviors cyclically. When kittens are very young their play behavior is more tentative and experimental, but as they mature through the juvenile period (3 to 6 months of age) their play can reek havoc with your sleep and other aspects of your life.

A graph of play behaviors would show a gradual build-up in frequency and intensity of play bouts, peaking at around 6 months of age, followed by a gentle decline that never actually returns to baseline. Some kittens play hard as youngsters and continue intense play behavior through one year of age and beyond, even up to 2 years old. By this latter age, even the most intense players have usually settled down but it is common for cats to play at times throughout their lives.

Since the purpose of play is to exercise young minds and muscles, improve motor skills and hone social behavior, it may seem odd that it would be continued throughout life. In fact, though play is useful, it is not absolutely necessary for normal development at any life stage. But there is another more plausible reason why cats play throughout their lives – because it's fun. Cats, like humans, play because they want to, not because they have to.

Before we consider how best to play with a kitten we should consider how they like to play so that we can mimic the fun.

Normal Kitten Play

  • Social play: Kittens spend a lot of time play fighting - rolling around on the floor locked in what looks like a death grip with a littermate, their ears pressed close to their heads, and a wild look in their eyes.

  • Predatory play: This involves hunting, stalking, lying in wait, springing out, running and pouncing. In nature, the target is often a small varmint that their mom has brought home for practice - but in a home setting a blowing leaf often has to suffice.

  • Sexual play: At around 4 to 5 months of age young males may start to jump on females from behind, gabbing them by the nape and pinning them for a few seconds.

    Transmuted Play

    In the household, social play may be directed toward an owner's hands and sometimes takes the form of petting-induced aggression. Predatory play may take the form of ambushing attacks directed toward an owner's calves or feet. It also takes the form of "object play," which is slightly more common in male kittens. Sexual play can be directed toward rolled up socks or pillows.

    How to Direct Play

  • All types of kitten play are best dissipated with other kittens. If you have more than one kitten, or even a youngish cat and a kitten, they will amuse themselves together for hours on end and take the heat for entertainment off you.

  • If the opportunity for play to be expressed with another cat or kitten does not exist, owners should provide a viable substitute for social and predatory play. Sexual play is controlled by neutering.

  • Normal social play involves rough and tumble. This activity should be recreated in the form of custom-designed play. Keep your hands or arms out of the way, though. If the kitten is permitted to attack your arms, that sends the wrong signal about your leadership. If allowed to vent its excess energies on you, the kitten may view you as a big squeaky toy and not as its fearless leader. Instead, use an inanimate object attached to a string or pole, animated (by jiggling) to encourage the kitten to get involved in harmless wrestling games.

  • Predatory play is the easiest to mimic. The essential ingredient is movement. Whether you use a laser mouse or a Cat Dancer®, the object should move quickly, and dance or wiggle. Regularly engaging a kitten in such play activity will provide fun and exercise for it and also provide an acceptable outlet for its obligatory hiding, stalking, and pouncing repertoire. For owners who don't have much time on their hands, there are some mobile toys that can provide diversion, distraction and outlets for a kitten with pent up prey drive. The simplest of these toys is a ping-pong ball, with or without enclosed food treat. More complex toys include carousels with toys hanging from the armatures that self-activate hourly, and feeders that spit out food laden balls at preset intervals.

    Play is not simply a hedonistic pleasure but provides mental and physical stimulation that contributes to a kitten's healthful and happy life. It is our responsibility as cat owners to ensure that our pets have ample opportunity and resources for play. To this end, each owner should research the types of toys that their cat finds most entertaining and should take time to indulge their feline companion. While a cat for your cat is the ultimate solution, a rotation of novel toys and an investment of your energies can go a long way toward accommodating your pet's needs and providing an outlet for what can otherwise wind up as misdirected behavior.

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