Do cats have an imagination?
It’s the middle of the night and your cat comes racing down the hall and through your bedroom to pounce on you asleep in your bed.
Your mind races. Is your house haunted? Did someone break in? Should you call 911?
First, take a deep breath, relax. then roll over and fluff your pillow—because there’s no need to panic. Odds are, kitty is simply playing pretend.
Evidence shows most animals exhibit some type of pretend play from early in their lives. A 2013 story from the BBC described how chimps and gorillas play pretend with everything from logs to actual toys. And, of course, we’ve seen human children host tea parties with dolls and empty cups. They enact fake battles between their toys. They have imaginary friends.
Cats certainly don’t engage the same level of play as humans, or even chimps, but they do use their imaginations any time they engage in play.
Whenever a cat bats at a wand toy, they’re mimicking specific hunting behaviors. And there’s evidence this instinctual behavior comes from their close cousins in the wild. It’s all proof that cats love to play pretend, and they do it in myriad ways.
But back to that midnight race to nowhere. Why do cats do that? Are they imagining they’re competing in the Daytona 500? Are they going after prey? Do they want your attention? Did they see a ghost?
Some of those things may be true, but ultimately, cats race through the house for one big reason: exercise.
Just like humans, cats need to exercise both their bodies and minds to stay happy and healthy. In the absence of a need to hunt for survival, a cat will come up with their own ways to play that helps them flex those literal and figurative muscles. In multi-pet households, cats may engage in games of chase with other animals. In single-cat homes, a feline might chase her owners. Chase games could even be limited to toys or shadows. Cats have extraordinary vision, which keeps them attuned to the slightest change in light or subtlest movements. So it’s not uncommon for a cat to attack what looks like nothing to our insufficient human eyes.
Cats also pretend their toys are prey. When kitty pounces on a wand toy, stalks her rustling Magic Carpet or bats at a Wiggly Ball, she is exhibiting the same behaviors that allow her to catch small prey like lizards, birds, and rodents in the wild.
For these reasons, it’s important to keep kitty’s playtime full of a variety of toys and creative interactions that help them use their imaginations. Remember to rotate toys frequently, and to provide your cat with a variety of scents to keep their senses engaged.
Our next blog will explore how imagination develops and changes throughout a cat’s life.