Tips For Making the Most of Cat Playtime

Cat lying on floor with small toys

Play is an important and instinctive activity for our cats and one which we all love watching them performing. But what does play really mean for them?

Ginger kitten playing with soft cat toy

Kittens start to play with objects from around the age of five weeks onwards. This is the time in kitten development when they need to start getting themselves ‘match fit’ for their future life as efficient killing machines, albeit very cute ones. They need to start working their muscles and getting their eye-to -paw movements coordinated. They also need to practice running and climbing so, when the time comes, they can go out and look for prey.

So, at around this time mum will start bringing live prey back to the nest for them to ‘practice on’. If you were to observe this, you’d see that all the movements they’re using on the poor, ill-fated victim, are the same as those they use with the toys we provide them with ie poking, pouncing, chasing, batting them with their paws and tossing them in the air. The reason for this seemingly over-the-top sadistic behaviour, is to ensure that their prey, some of whom have very sharp teeth, are suitably dazed before the kittens attempt to perform the ‘death bite’.

Ginger cat ready to pounce on feathers

And if you’ve ever wondered why cats wiggle their bum before a pounce, it’s because they have binocular vision which gives them two slightly different fixes, like a radar, on the object they’re aiming at, and the ‘wiggle’ is a way of adjusting the fix to enable them to get the distance right.

So, not only does play help kittens develop their hunting skills, but for our house cats it also provides stimulation and helps with weight management. It’s a fantastic way of preventing boredom and for the more anxious cats it’s the best way to challenge the brain, release tension in the body and raise their mood.

Cat rolling on ground playing with cat toy

So, what are good cats toys? Well, there's no easy answer as each cat usually has its own preference - some like jumping up at dangly feathers others prefer chasing balls, whilst others like nothing better than rolling around with something smelly, like catnip toys, valerian cat toys or toys infused with Tartarian honeysuckle. Even the most popular cat toys aren't loved by all cats!

This means that buying our cat a brand new toy (which let's face it, we're usually more excited about than the are!) can be a lottery. Even when you've found some toys that your cat likes playing with, he might discard them after only one or two play sessions. This is because cats have a very short span of attention and because, in their eyes what they’re doing is hunting prey, once they’ve caught and killed the saliva-covered furry catnip mouse, it’s dead, and no longer interesting.

Small colourful cat toys

If you want to avoid spending more money than necessary on an ever-increasing stockpile of toys, it’s a good idea to keep them all locked away in a sealed plastic bag containing a mixture of catnip, valerian leaves and ground Tartarian honeysuckle. Then rotate the toys by selecting one or each day for them to play with.

Here are some other tips for good quality playtime!

Grey and white cat holding onto fishing rod toy with feathers

When playing interactively with your cat the emphasis should be on predatory games using toys that replicate natural feline behaviour eg chasing toys such as laces or string with feathers on, or any of the fishing-rod type toys with attachments.

If using a cat laser toy, ensure you end the chase by throwing something for him to physically catch (and kill!)

When manipulating toys for your cat to chase, move them in a way that replicates the movement of your cats' natural prey!

Play in short bursts up to a maximum of 5 minutes before repeating as required.

Cat attacking human hand

Avoid using your hands or any other part of your body during play sessions with your cat.

Leave two or three toys out daily for your cat to keep himself amused with. These can include scent-rich toys such as those filled with catnip, valerian and Tartarian honeysuckle. Ensure these toys are safe to be left out and have no parts that can be chewed off and ingested.

Cat making funny face whilst playing with cat toy

When cats are playing with toys containing any natural stimulant, avoid touching them as they are likely to be highly aroused!

To keep your cat amused when you’re out, consider the use of moving or motion activated toys.

Tabby kitten playing in paper bag

Challenge and stimulation indoors can also be achieved occasionally through exciting exploratory games using paper bags (handles removed) or boxes containing a treat, pinch of catnip or Tatarian honeysuckle toy. As above, rotate these so that the contents of the boxes always remain a surprise. Some of the boxes can be upturned with a ‘door’ cut into them for your cat to hide under.

Some cats may also benefit from short sessions of ‘Cat TV’. There are plenty of examples to be found online as Billy demonstrates. His favourite is Tom and Jerry.

old black and white cat playing with string
22 years-old and Polly's still playing!

When it comes to play don't forget to include elderly cats. Gentle and regular play over short periods can help with any tendencies for them to gain weight, increase cognitive function and give them a better quality of life.

Tabby cat chewing on a slice of Tatarian honeysuckle wood

Always supervise your cat’s playtime, no matter what toy they’re using. Each cat has its own unique personality and a toy that one cat may not chew, another cat might. Although honeysuckle wood is extremely hard and there have been no reported problems in the many years it has been used as a cat toy, as a safety precaution we recommend it not be given to cats that are prone to chewing toys or other objects. Although in our experience most cats simply lick the honeysuckle wood as wetting it increases the potency of its aroma.

Ensure all toys are put safely away and out of reach of small paws every time you finish a play session.

If you have any suggestions for great shop-bought or home made cat toys email me at and I'll share it!

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