It's fun for you when you play with your cat, but to your cat it's serious business. When kittens play, they are actually learning how to be cats – they learn how to get along with others and how to get along in the world. Just like human children practice at being grown-up by playing with dolls or using play tools to fix their toys, kittens practice the skills that enable them to be hunters. Cats start playing when they are kittens and continue to play when they are grown up.
A cat's play takes three forms, although you might not be able to see a difference.
Social play is how kittens learn to be nice. They learn how to play with their brothers and sisters, their mother, other cats, other household pets and you. During social play, kittens learn the rules. They develop personality traits that stay with them until they are adults. As a kitten grows, social play with their brothers and sisters is replaced by social play with their humans.
Object play teaches a cat how the world and things in it feel. You may see your kitten jump on his toys, flip them and circle them once they land. These are acts that mimic hunting skills. This is just how a cat overpowers and kills a prey animal for food.
Cats hunt in three different ways. They pounce on mice and sitting birds. They sway flying birds and bugs out of the air. And they scoop fish out of the water. So poking, batting and tossing small objects are ways kittens learn about prey and develop the survival skills they might need if they have to provide for themselves.
Locomotor play is when your cat runs and jumps and rolls around on the floor. This helps a kitten increase strength, coordination and flexibility. It also helps your grown-up cat keep healthy and strong. It helps your cat's appetite and keeps your kitty from getting bored. If your cat likes to keep you awake at night by playing with your toes while you sleep, playing with him before bedtime can help him to sleep through the night.
In addition to the physical lessons play teaches kittens and cats, play also teaches emotional ones. Kittens learn that playing is just plain fun and that it feels good to run, jump and cavort with other cats and animals, including human ones.
Cats like to play with toys, but you have to make sure that the toys are safe. Make sure the toy is large enough so it can't be swallowed. Cats may eat small toy parts as well, so make sure there are no very small parts, strings, buttons or bells.
Remember that cats like to play at hunting and stalking prey. Some love a simple toy that has a feather or other object at the end of a long piece of wire. When they bat at the toy, it bounces and acts much like a bird. You can also drag it around on the floor so it behaves like a mouse. Pretend that the toy is a frightened little critter. It runs away from the fierce kitty; it hides around the corner, it ducks under the rug;, it freezes. Vary the speed and direction of the toy. You might try dimming the lights, since cats like to hunt when it's darker.
Don't make it too easy for your cat, but make sure you let him win once in a while. This will make him feel like a good hunter. You might want to praise him, too.
Some other good cat toys you can buy are balls with bells in them, catnip mice, and crinkly catnip things. You can also buy a package of inexpensive furry mice at the grocery store that some cats love.
Some great toys you already have at home: wads of paper, straws, and plastic rings from milk or juice containers. You can give your cat a paper sack to crawl into and hide. Or you can cut holes in a box and let him explore. He may make up games of his own, like chasing an imaginary prey in and out of the box.
Put the toys away after playtime. If a toy is always out, it can become boring. If you have more than one cat, play with all of them to prevent squabbles. Plan to play with your cat twice a day for about 15 minutes at a time. If you want to play more than that, your kitty will be very happy.