Cat play and toys

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Playing cat
Cat chewing on a toy
Cat playing with ball

Cat play and toys incorporates predatory games of "play aggression". Cats' behaviors when playing are similar to hunting behaviors. These activities allow kittens and younger cats to grow and acquire cognitive and motor skills, and to socialize with other cats. Cat play behavior can be either solitary (with toys or other objects) or social (with animals and people). They can play with a multitude of toys ranging from strings, to small furry toys resembling what would be prey (e.g. mice), to plastic bags.[1][2]

Defining object play[edit]

Object play for animals (in this case, cats) is the use of inanimate objects by the animal to express play behaviour. [3] In the case of pet domestic cats, humans normally provide them with purchased, human-made toys such as toy mice. When it comes to non-domestic, wild cats, they may use several objects in the wilderness as their toys including sticks, leaves, rocks, feathers, etc. Actions that cats may carry out as this play behaviour include throwing the toy object, chasing, biting, capturing, etc. as they might do with a real source of prey. Engaging in object play helps young cats to practice these skills that they need as they grow into adults.[3]

Nature of play[edit]

Play in kittens[edit]

Play in cats is a behaviour that is brought about during growth from the kitten stage onward. Some important aspects of this play behaviour for the development of kittens in to adult cats include motor development, social behaviour and cognitive development. [4]There are different types of play that develop at different stages during the development and growth of a kitten. The first play behaviours observed in kittens include things like approaching, pawing and holding onto each other. Following this stage in their development, kittens begin to show an interest in inanimate objects and prey behaviour. This is the development of their nonsocial behaviour in which they become more independent and begin to practice predatory/hunting behaviour. Play behaviour in kittens is also important in providing them with physical exercise as they are growing, as well as providing a means of interacting with other members of their litter to keep strong social bonds among them. [5] Social play is important between litter-mates since this is the main source of play for kittens in early life with little alternative to other means of play. [4] Kittens are limited in room for exploring for other means of play, so engaging in this social play behaviour is important until they have access to other play objects such as toys. [4]



Since cats are meat-eating predators, nearly all cat games are predatory games.[6]

Prey are fearful of predators. Predators often encounter prey that attempt to escape predation. Prey that move towards the cat with confidence may be exhibiting an aggressive defensive posture. Cats often play with toys that behave more like fearful prey trying to escape than toys that mimic more confrontational prey.

Success rate[edit]

Success rate is important in play. A cat that catches its prey every time soon gets bored, and a cat that never gets it just loses interest. The ideal hunting success rate is around 1 in 3 to 1 in 6. Capturing prey at this rate generally maximises a cat's interest in the game.[7]


Play is about predatory behaviour, and a highly excited cat can cause minor injuries in the excitement of the moment. With most cats, it is wise to keep playthings at least 20 cm (8") away from fingers or eyes and avoid encouraging a cat to eat inedible toys. If playing with a human's bare hands, a cat will generally resist using its claws or biting too hard, but a cat that becomes extremely excited may accidentally inflict injuries to its human playmate in the form of light scratches or small puncture wounds from biting too hard. Cats' claws and mouths can contain bacteria that can lead to infection, so it is wise to clean and treat any wounds with an antiseptic solution and seek professional medical services if there is reason to believe that the wound has become infected. [8]


Catching and eating are two closely related but separate activities. Domestic cats often store caught food for eating later. Eating happens when the game is over, so incorporating food into hunting games tends to end the interest in play. Hidden treats helps engage cat's senses such as sense of smell and can be a form of play which enables them to utilize their searching skills. This idea of treats linked with play helps cats form the association that treats signify happy behaviour.

Defining motor aspects of play[edit]

There are several different motor patterns associated with the play behaviour of cats and they have different roles in the social context.[9]Pouncing is one of these motor patterns in which it is used to initiate play through physical contact. Chasing and horizontal leaping is an example of a motor pattern that may be used by a cat to end play. The movement of a cat's tail during play and the varying rates at which the cat may move its tail can even be a useful indicator of its level of playfulness. There are patterns of belly-up and stand-up actions that are engaged in by kittens in which seem to show that they prefer to engage in physical contact play in terms of their social role among other kittens.[9]

Influence of hunger on cat behaviour[edit]

Hunger has been shown to give an increase in intensity in the play behaviour of cats, and a decrease in fear which they show towards larger-sized toys.[10] This effect that hunger has on play behaviour may be attributed to how experienced of a hunter the cat is. It is not expected that a cat who has a higher level of hunting experience would show this increased intensity of their play behaviour when hungry. Instead, they are more likely to show more predatory behaviour. In the case of cats with a lower level of hunting experience, they show this increased play behaviour since they are not able to engage in actual predatory activities and instead show predatory behaviours towards toys when hungry as an experienced hunter would show towards actual prey when hungry.[10]


  1. ^ ASPCA. Animal Behavior Center. "Play aggression".
  2. ^ Roger Tabor (30 April 2003). Understanding Cat Behavior. David & Charles. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-7153-1589-7.
  3. ^ a b Bekoff, Marc; Byers, John A. (1998-06-04). Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521586566.
  4. ^ a b c Mendoza, Diana L.; Ramirez, J. Martin (1987). "Play in kittens (Felis domesticus) and its association with cohesion and aggression". Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society. 25: 27–30. doi:10.3758/BF03330067.
  5. ^ West, Meredith (1974). "Social Play in the Domestic Cat". American Zoologist. 14 (1): 427–436. doi:10.1093/icb/14.1.427. JSTOR 3882000.
  6. ^ Hall & Bradshaw 1998.
  7. ^ Bessant, Claire (1999), The Complete Guide to the Cat, Barnes & Noble Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7607-1718-9[page needed]
  8. ^ Florin, T. A.; Zaoutis, T. E.; Zaoutis, L. B. (2008-05-01). "Beyond Cat Scratch Disease: Widening Spectrum of Bartonella henselae Infection". Pediatrics. 121 (5): e1413–e1425. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-1897. ISSN 0031-4005. PMID 18443019.
  9. ^ a b West, Meredith (1974). "Social Play in the Domestic Cat". American Zoologist. 14 (1): 427–436. doi:10.1093/icb/14.1.427. JSTOR 3882000.
  10. ^ a b Hall, Sarah L.; Bradshaw, John W.S (1998). "The influence of hunger on object play by adult domestic cats". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 58 (1–2): 143–150. doi:10.1016/S0168-1591(97)00136-6.

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