A client of mine recently fostered four gorgeous Bengal kittens. If you know anything about this exotic breed, you know that Bengals are known for having lots of energy. They love to run, and with their long back feet, they are experts at jumping and pouncing. So they need lots of exercise and play time — and as growing kittens, they love to eat! My client said all four vocalized loudly when they wanted to play, and if she didn’t give them the amount of exercise they wanted, they’d play all night, keeping her awake.
But it’s not just Bengals who need play time. All indoor cats need opportunities to run, play, pounce, and hide. Adequate physical and mental stimulation will improve your cat’s quality of life and deepen your bond with them. A physically active cat will be healthier, and less aggressive too.
1. Improve your cat’s quality of life
Indoor cats need extra TLC than outdoor or feral cats. And by TLC I mean you want a “totally lively cat.” A cat who gets regular mental stimulation and physical activity will live a healthier, happier life. Cats who don’t play will become bored. And boredom can lead to a host of health issues down the road, including heart disease and depression.
I know we’re all super busy these days, but that’s precisely why your cat needs you to play with him. Even if you work from home and your cat isn’t alone all day, I doubt you have time to sit down to snuggle. And I’d bet you don’t have “play with Fluffy” on your to-do list. (If you do, good for you! Keep it up!) The point is, cats aren’t as independent as we used to think. You have to make time for your cat just like you do your other family members and pets.
If I could give you one tip to get your cat to play, I’d suggest rotating kitty’s toys. If he’s bored with his regular selection, box them up and find one or two new ones. You don’t even need to spend money if you don’t want. You can crinkle up some scrap paper and sprinkle a little silvervine on it. The point is, it doesn’t have to be fancy; it just needs to be different. Anything out of the ordinary will get your cat sniffing and batting at the new toy just to check it out.
2. Deepen your bond with your cat
Do you have a cat who’s more attached to you than another family member? Have you ever thought about why that is? Cats will attach themselves to the human who gives them what they want – whether that’s food, affection, or play time. It’s how they domesticated humans. Yes, I said cats domesticated us. They figured out pretty early on that small vermin like mice could be found where humans were. And in exchange for the free buffet and warm place to sleep, humans got free pest control. Win-win.
For an indoor cat, kibble and canned food are plentiful, but our cats still have the need to “hunt.” So they look for us to provide the “prey” that they need. With a domestic feline, forming a bond with your cat is as easy as grabbing a wand toy or small, mouse-like stuffy. You may have to experiment a bit to find your cat’s play style, but once you do, you’ll notice how much your cat appreciates the attention.
3. Keep your cat healthy
Play is the single most important thing we can do for our indoor cats. In the wild cats get tons of physical activity because they hunt, but when we coop them up indoors, cats tend to sleep more than they really need to and it leads to a host of physical and mental health problems.
Cats who play regularly live longer and sleep less. They are also less likely to experience anxiety and boredom when they have their minds stimulated through hunting and scent enrichment.
The best way to keep your cat engaged in play time is with toys that mimic prey. Look for toys that flutter, skitter, and make fun noises. And keep it challenging. Cats in the wild only catch their prey about 30 percent of the time. It’s important to find the right balance of tease and ease. If you always keep the toy out of reach, your cat will become frustrated and lose interest in play.
4. Help vent excess energy
As with my client’s Bengals, almost all indoor cats have excess energy that they never get to exert because they spend all 24 hours of the day trapped indoors. That means we have to work a little harder to make sure they are getting the movement they need to satisfy their needs. But I promise, play time will repay you ten-fold when your cat doesn’t have the zoomies at 3 a.m.
Cats are naturally crepuscular – meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk. If your cat is restless in the middle of the night, she’s probably bored and not getting enough activity during the day. To keep her from pouncing on your head while your deep in REM sleep, set aside a few minutes of high-energy play with a wand toy or any slithering, dancing, crinkling, or flying favorite. Encourage your cat to run, pounce, and jump for at least five minutes. If your cat is young, you’ll need to do this a few times a day. An older or senior cat may only need a couple of minutes twice a day.
5. Reduce aggressive behaviors
Cats will do all kinds of crazy things to get your attention, including biting, chasing, and even scratching. It’s not fun for you, but your cat is having a blast! They think we’re part of their colony so if your cat is getting aggressive with you, a family member or other pet, remember they’re just playing.
I believe positive reinforcement is the best way to encourage a cat’s behavior. If you spray him with a water bottle when he’s only playing, he may think it’s wrong to play, when really it’s just that it hurts when he bites you! Instead, I recommend playing with your cat when he’s relatively calm. Don’t play while he’s feisty. That will teach him to bite or scratch to get your attention. Make playtime a part of your cat’s regular routine. You can schedule it around meal times or by the clock. I keep a wand toy in my closet to remind me to play with Roo while I’m getting ready in the morning and when I get ready for bed at night.
Want more ways to expand your cat’s world?
In my new book, Indoor Cat: How to Enrich Their Lives and Expand Their World (Running Press Adult, April 2022), fellow cat lover Laura Moss and I reveal all the ways you can enrich your cat’s life through play, scent enrichment, outdoor time, and more. You can also check out the Dezi & Roo blog and AdventureCats.org for more tips on helping your cat live life to the fullest.