Cats have a reputation for being low-maintenance, easy-care pets. They don’t need much space, daily walks or access to outdoors (although many cats would like that) or regular baths. Some even contribute to the household with their hunting prowess, should an unlucky mouse appear indoors.
Because cats are easy-to-keep pets, many people assume cats don’t need as much attention as dogs do. But as any cat owner knows, that’s simply not true. Cats benefit from consistent interactive play and activity (aka exercise) as much as dogs and people do.
Why your cat needs exercise — disguised as play — too.
Playing with your cat, or interactive play, is a great way to get your kitty moving every day. Especially if they are an indoor-only pet, your cat will benefit both physically and mentally, from kittenhood all the way through their golden years. While kittens and young adult cats tend to spontaneously play and entertain themselves, older and overweight cats may need you to help find their inner kitten.
According to Petcoach.com, cats benefit from consistent, interactive play in many ways:
- Exercise — Play encourages your cat to be active, helps maintain a healthy body weight and keeps muscles toned and strong. Activities that let your cat express their natural hunting instincts also help keep their mind alert and active.
Given that an estimated 60 percent of U.S. cats are overweight or obese, encouraging your tubby tabby to move more can help them lose weight gradually while helping to maintain their calorie-burning muscles. Just be sure to discuss any changes in diet or activity with your veterinarian first.
- Stress relief — Stress and anxiety are as harmful to our feline friends as they are to us. Stressed cats are more likely to develop behavioral problems, such as aggression, urine spraying or obsessive-compulsive disorders. One of the best ways to counteract kitty stress? Regular playtime with you (and it just may lower your stress level, too).
- Break from boredom — Cats are naturally curious and need some type of challenge or entertainment every day. If they aren’t entertained or challenged, cats can become bored, lethargic and depressed. Interactive playtime, along with other toys or entertainment while you’re away from home, can help avoid kitty boredom and mischief.
- Enhance bonding — Playing with your cat is an excellent way to increase the bond that you share with your cat.
How much playtime does your cat need?
Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant and best-selling author, says cats need the consistency of scheduled interactive playtime. She recommends scheduling playtime once or twice daily, with about 15 minutes per session. Other cat health and behavior experts offer similar recommendations, with the total amount of playtime ranging from 20 to 60 minutes daily. Playtime should be split into multiple 10- to 15-minute segments as cats are naturally active in short bursts.
How much time you spend playing with your cat will depend on several factors, including age, weight and the presence of health issues such as arthritis, heart disease or high blood pressure (hypertension).
Kittens or young cats, who tend to be easily amused, will often take the initiative in playing with you and will want to continue playing for a longer period of time. In contrast, older cats may be a bit tougher to get moving. These feline friends may not have the stamina or interest in extended playtimes, so you’ll want to limit playtime to only a couple of minutes two to three times a day when starting out. Depending on how your cat responds, you can gradually increase the amount of time you spend playing together.
How to play with your cat.
Cats need a variety of toys, including those they can play with on their own and those that you use to play with them. You’ll also want to provide items for your cat to explore, such as cardboard boxes, paper shopping bags, packing paper and toys that encourage them to investigate various holes with their paws.
Cats are natural hunters, so it makes sense that the best way to get your cat moving and playing is to stimulate their predatory instincts. Small, motorized, remote-controlled and battery-powered mice are great for capturing your cat’s attention and then getting them to stalk, pounce and chase. Feather toys, which are often attached to the end of a wand or string, are good bird replicas for your feline friend to stalk and even snatch from the air. Yet another favorite is the laser pointer, which can imitate a bug for your cat to hunt and chase. Just be sure to avoid pointing the light directly into your cat’s eyes.
For those times when you’re not home, you’ll want to have toys that your cat can throw around, such as small mice (with or without catnip), or swat, such as crinkle and rattle balls. Interactive toy puzzles that challenge cats to get to treats through different openings can keep your kitty entertained and mentally stimulated.
Remember to introduce new toys, or at least alternate toys, occasionally to keep your cat from becoming bored. And you also need to let them catch the “prey” from time to time. Both of these practices will keep playtime interesting for your kitty.
A quick word about playtime for cats with health issues.
If you have a tubby tabby, introduce exercise gently and gradually to avoid injury. Overweight and obese cats can damage their joints if they do too much too fast. Plus, these cats may not have enough stamina for even 10 minutes of playtime, so start gradually. And hold off on stair running and jumping until your cat has lost some weight.
If your cat has heart disease or high blood pressure, you’ll want to monitor them closely for labored breathing (e.g., panting, shallow breaths) or rapid tiring. If you feel your cat is overdoing it, slow things down or take a short break.
Of course, talk with your veterinarian before starting any interactive playtime or exercise program for your cat, especially if you cat has underlying health concerns.