Cats are naturally very agile, and will typically have multiple short periods of activities throughout the day. They are super flexible and will explore their three dimensional environment as much as possible. Due to their hunter instincts, they are very curious and independent creatures.
Because they are so free-spirited, it can be very hard to stimulate them to exercise. Unlike a dog, you can’t just put a leash on and go for a long walk in the woods for hours every day. Cats also like to follow their own time schedule, and go where they please when it pleases them. You basically can’t force a cat to do anything they don’t want to do. So getting your cat to lose weight or stay fit can be very challenging. In this article, we will tackle different ways to keep your furry baby fit and healthy, from a physical and emotional standpoint.
Playing behavior mimics predatory hunting behavior. Searching toys (acting as the ‘prey’), stalking, pouncing, chasing and manipulating is necessary for a cat. Playing with your furry friend will not only prevent obesity, but will also help make your relationship with your cat stronger and relieve anxiety.
Play with cat toys and stay clear of playing with your hands. It may look fun and harmless when you have a tiny kitten, but it will quickly escalate to aggression and will be painful when your little ball of fur becomes a fully grown adult. It’s important to set good habits as early as possible.
A kitten that can’t actively play will quickly get frustrated and will redirect his hunting instincts on owners, pouncing on and biting hands, feet and ankles. If your kitten is directing her predatory play on you, it is advised to stay still and completely ignore her for a few minutes. Then you can grab a suitable toy and distract her with it. 1
Each cat is different. Some have a low play drive, some have a high play drive. If your cat has a low play drive, she might get tired quickly and will need a lot of persuasion to start playing. Finding what stimulate your cat to play will be trial and error.
Cats usually have their ‘mad half-hour’ during the day where they get super active for a short period of time. If you are around, take the opportunity of interacting with your furry baby.
When choosing toys, it is best to look for different shapes, textures, sizes, scents and noises that it makes (crinkles, squeaks, etc). Some toys will involve your interaction, such as fetching games, wand toys and laser pointers; some toys will be more for solitary play, such as moving and chasing a ping pong ball for example.
CAUTION: Laser pointers can cause frustration if there is no reward of catching the object at the end. So in this instance, reward with a treat or a toy.
From personal experience, having a range of different toys and randomly rotating them day to day will keep your kitty engaged. Cats are renowned for being neophilic (stimulated by novelty), so avoid leaving the same toys day in, day out on the floor. Put away the toys that need human interaction if it’s not the right time for you. 2
I have found that most of my cats are stimulated by the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria), whether in its dry form, fresh or as a spray. It contains the chemical trans-nepetalactone which is closely related to a substance secreted by a female cat in her urine. 3 About 50 to 70% of the cat population will be responsive to catnip. Many cat toys come with dry catnip that you can insert inside a little pocket. Those toys are Sushi’s favorites. He will play for ages, rubbing his face on it, drooling, rolling, tossing it in the air and pouncing on it again.
Explore and forage play
Cats love to explore their environment. You can use this curiosity to get them to exercise and to get them engaged. Try putting toys in cardboard boxes, use cupboards and wardrobes, and cat activity centers. Sushi loves to explore a cardboard box and he will sometimes get himself comfy and have a nap in it!
When it comes to feeding time, try to add some foraging activity to keep away boredom. Hide food kibbles in multiple locations. Try tossing kibbles of food for your cat to chase. Get some puzzle feeders. Those can be handmade or bought. Puzzle feeders could be balls where you can put dry kibbles in and your cat has to push them around so the kibbles fall one by one. Activity board feeders where they have to use their brains and their paws to get the food are great. Cats also enjoy homemade feeding toys such as one made from empty toilet paper tubes taped together or an egg carton. (put link to puzzle feeders)
Remember to always weigh out the amount of food for your cat’s specific daily energy requirement so you don’t end up overfeeding him.
Cat trees are great as they are multi purpose. They provide a scratching outlet, play opportunities, climbing exercises, resting places, vantage point and a place of security. See our favorite cat trees of 2019.
Playing with your cat outdoors
- If your cat has access to a garden, play with him outside using a rod, wand with fake fur or feathers; or just a long twig will suffice when it comes to my cat Sushi. It will provide some predatory behavior whilst getting his heart pumping.
Cats thrive when they are given opportunities to play and explore their environment. By playing with your cats, they will stay fit in mind and body. Your relationship will improve and your furry friends will feel like they live in a safe haven.
- Ireson, J. (2018) A kitten’s first year 4: preventing behavioural problems. Feline focus, 2018; 4(8): 221-229.
- Ellis, S L H et al (2013) AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15: 219-230.
- Ellis, S. and Halls, V. (2011) Cats and play – how to stimulate; what to use. 2011 FABConference, 17-20.