How to Play With Your Cat to Make Them Happy · The Wildest

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Your Cat Really Wants You to Play With Them—Here’s How

It’s the key to a happy cat.

by Hilary Weaver
March 20, 2024
Woman playing with her cat.
Yazgi Bayram / iStock

Mikel Delgado describes herself as a “playful person.” She loves puzzles, games, and making art and music. In fact, when The Wildest Zoomed with the animal behaviorist and cat behavior consultant, a drum set was in clear view behind her. So, as a cat expert, it’s no surprise that play and frivolity is top of mind for Delgado, whose book How to Play With Your Cat: The Essential Guide to Interactive Play for a Happier, Healthier Feline, was released on March 5. 

“As a scientist, I was doing work that was related to different forms of enrichment in cats including play,” she tells us. “I wrote a scientific review of play behavior in cats and was thinking it would be really cool to translate this to your average cat owner, so it’s not all full of stuffy language and citations but actually distill it into something useful.”

Delgado certainly achieved what she set out to do: How to Play With Your Cat is a fun, accessible (and yes, playful!) guide for cat parents, that explores the four types of cat play: locomotive, predatory, object play, and social play. Cat parents will also be disabused of any assumptions that cats can just be left to their own (literal) devices — looking at you, electronic toys. While Delgado says there is a place for interactive tech, like iPad mouse games, it’s crucial to remember that your cat needs one-on-one play with you and with other cats, especially when they are kittens. 

the four types of cat play, illustrated
Illustration by Lili Chin

“I do think that people don’t think of play as important as the other stuff,” Delgado says. “Just scoop the litter box and toss some food down, and they’re fine. We really ignore the social interactions with cats that they need and thrive off of and also the mental stimulation and exercise component.” 

She goes on to say that play is “just as important as having something to scratch. It’s just as important as giving them access to cat food. It’s just as important as giving them clean places to [poop and pee] — things that are very natural and instinctive to them.”

Below, Delgado tells us why play should be top of mind for new pet parents (and how to train those overly enthusiastic paws to bat at a kicker toy instead of a human hand). 

This interview has been edited for accuracy and clarity. 

Why was it so important for you to write this book, and why should new cat parents read it?

From my experience working with new cat owners through my behavioral consulting service and at the shelter, I heard again and again from people that they did not play with their cats: “Oh, he doesn’t like to play.” I saw this potential issue where either people didn’t understand how to play with their cats, or they didn’t recognize play in their cats, or they didn’t know how to play.

To me, a natural antidote to that is encouraging play and activity in our cats. Just like when we exercise, we get an endorphin rush, and it kind of takes our mind off our problems; I want people to do the same thing with our cats. I saw an opportunity to really help people help their cats and have a better relationship with their cat, reduce the prevalence of behavior problems, but also just make their cat happier. Let’s give cats some fun. 

Why is it so important to start your cats playing when they’re young?

Play should happen throughout a cat’s life, but cats need play a lot more when they’re younger because one: They have a lot more energy. Two: They’re at a stage where they’re perfecting their life skills, so they have a lot more drive to basically chase anything that moves. Really, when I deal with clients who have recently adopted a kitten, nine times out of 10, they’re complaining that the cat is “too wild.” Climbing on the curtains, jumping on their hands and feet. 

These things are natural because of their phase of life, but one thing is we don’t want to establish bad habits in kittens. Tt’s really important to play with so that they don’t get in the habit of seeking out hands and feet and eyelashes as something to bat at and pounce on.

What’s good advice for how to respond when the kitten bats at your hands or feet? How do you redirect them?

There’s often a conflict, because we want to pet the kitten because the kitten is soft and cute, and the kitten’s feeling a little bit wild. So, they might not be in the mood for petting; they may want to play instead. I usually recommend letting the cat approach you for petting, or pet the cat when they seem a little more relaxed.

And if you pet them, and they seem a little worked up, than either leave them alone or switch to play. So, you could switch to an interactive toy, or if they’re trying to bite and kick your hand, you can switch to a kicker toy. So, you can be like, “Oh, you’re in that kind of mood; let’s give you this instead.” 

What is the biggest misunderstood assumption about cat’s play habits?

The biggest thing is that people understand what I call solo-play toys for their cats, [like little mice, balls, and springs]. But they’re not understanding the connection between them moving the toy and truly giving their cat an outlet for that hunting behavior. Because if you’re a cat hunting, you’re not pushing the mouse around and then chasing the mouse like you are with the little mouse toy. 

In the case of hunting, the prey is animated; the prey is living and moving. When we are playing the puppet master, we’re moving the toy. We’re taking away some of the predictability, so that’s more like prey would behave. The solo-play toys are important and fun, especially for kittens, but that’s not the key type of play that cats really benefit from, which is really mimicking the hunting experience through interactive play. 

What do people need to know about their kitten’s play habits specifically?

People also don’t know how much play kittens need when they’re young. They’re bananas. They can play all day without getting exhausted, which is why I recommend getting kittens in pairs because then they can play with each other, so that’s the social play. The social play is the earliest observed in kittens.

At most shelters, you can’t get a kitten before eight to 12 weeks. So, a lot of the early play with kittens starts at homes, when they’re with mom, in their litter. They’re going to start playing with their littermates as soon as they can open their eyes, and they’re gonna start wiggling around. 

That’s when social play begins and then it kind of peaks at around four months of age. Most kittens go into a home during that period of high social play, and if they’re going into the home alone, then won’t have that companion for social play.

You talk about the importance of playing with small things for kittens who are developing, because they’re attracted to things that don’t seem threatening. How can you keep your kitten safe when they’re doing this?

Anything with strings, wires, something that you should be holding in your hand when you’re playing with your cat, needs to be put completely away when you’re not around. As for small items, we don’t want to use anything they can choke on, so ping-pongs are usually safe. Wine corks are usually safe. You what to observe your kitten with toys; you want to be aware of anything with ribbons and strings they could chew off or weird little eyeballs they could chew off. 

So, I do recommend that people observe and think, Is there anything that could fall off? The safest toys have the fewest bells and whistles. So, I like toilet paper rolls cut up into smaller bits and ping pong balls or things about that size or bigger without dangling parts on them.

Hilary Weaver

Hilary Weaver is the senior editor at The Wildest. She has previously been an editor at The Spruce Pets, ELLE, and The Cut. She was a staff writer at Vanity Fair from 2016 to 2019, and her work has been featured in Esquire, Refinery 29, BuzzFeed, Parade, and more. She lives with her herding pups, Georgie and Charlie.

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