A cat nibbles on its toy.

Get Stimulated! How to Exercise and Play with Your Cat

Have you ever watched your cat exercise? Perhaps your kitty’s exercise regimen consists of a mad dash around the house — a furry bullet dashing from room to room. Or possibly it’s jumping up on horizontal (and even vertical) surfaces, tearing up the carpets and furniture, or attacking your feet in the middle of the night.

Exercise is as important to your cat as it is to you. Young cats, as well as healthy adult cats, need periods of exercise. Even our senior pets need regular exercise to maintain their health and well-being.

We all know that exercise affects us both physically and mentally. The same is true for your cat. Your kitty can become depressed if not sufficiently stimulated. They may keep you awake at night if they don’t receive enough exercise during the day. Cats are wonderful athletes, but they generally like to exercise for brief periods only. A vigorous play session before bed may help you both get some sleep.

Here are some of our favorite ways to get active with our cats.

Understand Your Cat

The first step in exercising with your feline friend is understanding how cats play. Cats, like all mammals, engage in play as youngsters and continue to do so even after they have grown up. Play is a complex learning activity that helps kittens develop social relationships and hone their physical and mental skills. But it is also fun, which is why adult cats continue to do it. A cat’s play takes three forms, though it is often difficult to separate them.

Social Play

Social play is how kittens learn to interact with their littermates, their mother, other cats, other household pets, and you. During social play, kittens test their world and learn their place in it. Kittens develop personality traits that accompany them into adulthood based on these playful interactions. As a kitten grows, social play with littermates gives way to social play with their human caregiver(s), assuming that the kitten is adopted into a family and is not simply fending for itself.

Object Play

Object play — poking, batting, and tossing around small objects — is the way that kittens learn how to deal with prey. During these play sessions, they develop the survival skills they’ll need if they ever have to provide for themselves. You may see your kitten stomp on their toys, flip them over, and circle them once they land – acts that mimic overpowering and killing a prey animal for food. Object play teaches a cat how the world and things in it feel, what is animate and what is inanimate. Your cat may jump up from their toys as if noxious, invisible rays emanate from them, and then dissolve into fits of sheer delight and discovery.

Locomotor Play

An active cat is a confident cat. The running and jumping of locomotor play helps a kitten increase strength, coordination, and flexibility. Locomotor play stimulates a cat’s appetite while helping to keep them physically fit. In addition, locomotor play helps eliminate boredom. An active play session in the evening can help reduce a cat’s nocturnal perambulations, which otherwise may keep the cat’s owner awake.

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.

Choose the Right Toys

There are tons and tons of cat toys on the market, but do you know your cat’s toy preference? Is your cat a birder, a mouser, or a bugger? Does your cat prefer toys that mimic birds, mice, or catching bugs? There are many types of cat toys made for cats and each cat has their own preferences as to what stimulates them to interact.

Buy several cat toys and roll them or toss them to your cat to determine their preference. Watch to see which type of toy is most interesting to your cat. For example, you may see a trend of your cat preferring toys that simulate birds, such as bird-shaped toys, toys that chirp, toys made of a bird-type substrate (feathers), or toys that create bird-like movements (fluttering toys). Other cats will prefer toys that mimic “catching small rodents,” such as toys shaped like mice, toys that squeak, toys made of fur, or toys that have jerking movements. They may also enjoy tossing, biting, or carrying their “prey.” Movements that simulate bug catching are a favorite play type for many cats. You can test this by giving your cat a kibble of food to chase, using a laser light on the floor or wall, or by playing with a string with a knot on the end and moving it quickly.

Mix It Up

When introducing cat toys, introduce them one at a time. Use different sizes, shapes, and textures. Try fur, feathers, fabric, and leather. Roll them, toss them, slide them, and move them in different ways and at different speeds. When using toys such as wands or sticks that have dangling objects, play with your cat by dangling the toy in front of them and slowly moving it away. Try the feathery options that fly and mimic bird feather movement. These work really well and will often provoke a “pounce” in cats that enjoy that type of play activity. You might find that your cat likes a crinkle ball that rolls or bounces and makes noise when they “attack,” which simulates some of the movement and sounds of prey.

Once you figure out what your cat prefers, you can vary the sizes and types of cat toys within that category.

Avoid Boredom

Keeping a cat indoors has benefits — it minimizes the chances for trauma from being hit by an automobile, bite wounds from cat fights or attacks by wild animals, common infectious diseases, and exposure to toxins, just to name a few. On the other hand, a risk of keeping your cat indoors is that they may become bored. Boredom can lead to a variety of problems, such as inappropriate urination, scratching, aggression, depression, lethargy, over-vocalization/crying, increased or decreased appetite, and excessive sleeping.

The most important thing you can do to prevent boredom in your cat is to make sure their environment is stimulating. This means an environment with things to do — windows to look out of, things to watch, places to climb, and safe toys to play with. Climbing posts, scratching posts, cat grass, windows perches, window beds, and a view of birds or squirrels to watch are all great ways to enrich your cat’s life and prevent boredom.

Play Games

Games can teach your cat a variety of lessons and help them interact with you and other pets in the household. Some experts, such as veterinarians Suzanne Delzio and Cindy Ribarich, authors of Felinestein: Pampering the Genius in Your Cat, believe that games can even boost your cat’s IQ.

Cats are usually pretty good at inventing games to keep themselves amused, but sometimes their creativity needs a boost. To help your cat stay amused, active, and interested, try games that are easy for you to make and fun for your cat to play. Most involve using items you can find around the house.

Common At-Home Exercises

A lot of games can be played with a ping pong ball. Ping pong balls are lightweight and won’t harm your cat or your furniture in the event of a bad throw. If you have a long hallway, roll the ball from side to side and watch your cat chase it down the hall. If you don’t have a hallway, roll the ball around in the bathtub or on an uncarpeted area where there’s room for your cat to run.

One of the most popular toys for cats is the fishing-pole style toy. The pole should be made from flexible plastic for safety. The string should be made with 50-pound fishing line. Purchase a pole-toy that has a three-inch swatch of fabric folded in half and tied to the end of the fishing line. The fabric mimics the movement of a moth or other insect in flight and is more apt to fascinate your cat than frighten them, which some of the larger objects attached to pole toys may do. You can swing the fishing-pole toy to a radius of six or seven feet all from your easy chair. When your cat is finished playing with the toy, put it away so they don’t chew on or swallow the string.

Resources for Exercising and Playing With Your Cat

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