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Cat Tips

"Punishment" is not in your cat's vocabulary. Positive reinforcement of good behavior -- with treats, attention and verbal praise -- solves most kitty behavioral problems.

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Your Cat's Inner Kitten Released

By Kim Boatman

Your Cat\'s Inner Kitten Released

At 14, Mary Margaret the cat still shows flashes of playful kitten, chasing after any airborne toy. “If I were to let her outside, I know she would nail every bird, because she loves to leap up in the air,” says owner Pam Johnson-Bennett.

Like us, cats such as Mary Margaret enjoy tapping into their youthful nature from time to time. But it’s up to us to encourage them to cut loose. Too often, we forget to play with our cats as they age, says Johnson-Bennett, a Nashville, Tenn., cat behavior expert who has written a number of related books. “Just because your cat has stopped playing doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to play anymore,” she says. “We get lazy because when cats are kittens they’ll play with anything, even a speck of dust.”

It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to help your cat channel its inner kitten, even if your kitty has become something of a couch feline, say our experts. All you’ll need is a bit of ingenuity, some understanding of your cat’s nature and a willingness to spend some time playing each day. Follow these four play primers to inspire kitten-like antics in your favorite cat:

  • Customize play Since cat play mimics hunting, you should know what sort of hunter your cat is. Of course, you’re not allowing your cat outside to hunt little beasties, but your cat has basic instincts when it comes to pursuing prey, says Johnson-Bennett. For instance, while Johnson-Bennett’s cat loves to chase things through the air, Mary Margaret doesn’t have much interest in objects that move along the floor. Don’t assume that your cat doesn’t want to play because it doesn’t chase after one type of toy. Experiment with several different types. If your cat is elderly, overweight or has health issues, its ability or inclination to play might be extremely limited. Check with your veterinarian about appropriate activities, and customize play for your cat, says Redwood City, Calif. cat behaviorist Marilyn Krieger. “It’s like any athlete. Get your doctor’s approval first,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re very in touch with your cat.”
  • Present a challenge Whether you’re twitching a string from behind a doorway or tempting your darling by slowly rolling a ball from behind the sofa to another spot, your cat should enjoy the success of capturing the toy as well as feeling challenged by it. “You don’t want it to be such a challenge that the cat gets overtired and doesn’t catch the toy,” she adds.

Varying toys, hiding places and routines is a great way to bring out the kitten in your cat: Hide a ping-pong ball in a paper bag turned on its side, suggests Johnson-Bennett; leave some dry food inside an empty tissue box; stuff a bit of catnip in an old sock then tie off the end; and play hide-and-seek. Those catnip-filled fuzzy mice are real snoozers if left sitting in the cat toy basket. Toys become much more intriguing if they’re partially hidden near scratching posts or left peeking out from under furniture.

  • Keep playtime short and sweet Your cat might want to play for five minutes a couple of times a day, says Johnson-Bennett. You don’t want to exhaust your older kitty with marathon play sessions. Understand your cat’s schedule, too. Just as we are getting ready to plop down on the sofa after a long day of work, cats -- nocturnal by nature -- are revving up for playtime.
  • Provide a reward After your cat enjoys the satisfaction of catching the toy it’s pursuing, say our experts, you can offer a treat or link feeding times to the end of play sessions. Your feline would be enjoying the bounty from a successful hunt in the wild, explains Krieger. Upon completion of the “hunt,” your cat will be ready to eat, groom itself and then grab a nap. Both Johnson-Bennett and Krieger suggest using food-fillable plastic balls, available for a nominal cost at pet stores. The balls can be filled with dry food or hard treats and will occasionally dispense a tidbit or two as they roll, or are batted across, the floor.

Above all else, a play session should be fun for both you and your pet. “You want to be careful that you don’t overdo it, but you do want to play,” says Krieger. After all, don’t we all crave the carefree freedom and exuberance of childhood at times? Your cat is no different, and it will likely enjoy a few kitten-like moments each day. According to the experts, you’ll also be providing the sort of physical and mental stimulation your kitty needs to live a long, youthful life.

Photo: Corbis Images

Kim Boatman is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Daily Catbased in Northern California whose work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals and shares her home with three cats.


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Posted on May 29, 2009

camie-k says: Hi Arlene - most definitely get your cat to the vet. Any animal that pulls it's own fur out has got something going on that needs attention - it could be something as simple as the animal being stressed about 'anything' to an internal medical issue that needs immediate attention. Better to find out sooner than later...it might be something as simple as a skin rash - better to have your little friend checked out and then begin to eliminate the 'non-problems' from the list of possibilities to narrow it down to the actual causes of your cats recent behavior. Good luck!!

Posted on May 12, 2009

C. H. says: Why does my 10 month kitten put her toys in the water dish then brings them to my bed, ever roll over onto a wet toy?

Posted on May 29, 2009

camie-k says: Hi Bob, I had an 18 year old cat that did the same thing...not a persian but still a little old man all the same. My vet said that it might be that they have a touch of dimentia and get lost or forget where they are or where they were going. He called it Kitty Alzheimers - whenever my cat started cry-meowing I would just call out to him and that seemed to immediately help calm him. Animals are just like people - when they get older like that, their faculties start to go.

Posted on April 11, 2009

Jill says: I'm moving the end of Aug to RI, I gave up my dog because his bad behaviors were just too much to handle anylonger. I've decided I miss having an animal. I would love to get a kitten, I had a cat once before and enjoyed him so much. Should I get a kitten, what should I know about?

Posted on March 4, 2009

sue johnson says: I got my 8 month old bengal cat 1 week ago and she has turned my house upside down she jumps on everything and knoecks everhything off its shelf and keeps me up all night long. How do I calm her down and make her sleep @ night?

Posted on February 19, 2009

Lils says: My cat used to do backflips as a kitten. We would drag the string along the ground and flip it over her head. She landed facing the other way! Now she's way lazy and prefers to eat, sleep and snuggle with me.

Posted on January 15, 2009

linda says: i got a stray a yr ago and my 3 yr old calico is still a bully- i keep them seperated - but when they cross paths accidentally- the 3 yr old is a bully and attacks the 1 yr old-hurting her- i want to combine them- they are both female calicos- how do i get the 3 yr old not to attack her- the new cat is much smaller and doesn't have a chance-

Posted on January 13, 2009

Monica Martofel says: Our cat eats anything paper. Newspaper, my mail, even wrapping paper while I'm wrapping the gift. He will also chew on tote bags made of heavy plastic.

Posted on January 9, 2009

Arlene Taylor says: I have a very skittish female cat for the last 7 yrs. who I cannot even pick her up. She is loosing her fur from the middle of her back to above the beginning of her tail. She doesn't itch , but sometime I find her pulling on her fur. I want to take her to the vet, but I can't catch her to pick her up. Is this serious?

Posted on January 1, 2009

Kimberly says: I have a very large aggressive male cat who I have lived alone with for many years. It is apparent that he prefers the company of women over men. Given these details I now have a male roommate who Temper detests. Temper's ears go back as soon as he walks in the door and he wont even take his favorite treats from him. I have my roommate feed him every morning thinking it might help but it doesnt....any suggestions because he has now started spraying outside his box.......Thanks

Posted on January 1, 2009

Kimberly says: I have a very large aggressive male cat who I have lived alone with for many years. It is apparent that he prefers the company of women over men. Given these details I know have a male roommate who he detests. Temper's ears go back as soon as he walks in the door and he wont even take his favorite treats from him. I have my roommate feed him every morning thinking it might help but it did not.....any suggestions because he has now started spraying outside his box.......Thanks

Posted on December 24, 2008

bob says: our 17 yr old male persian has recently began meowing at the top of his lungs for 6 or 7 times. the vet says theres nothing wrong with him . the rest of the time he meows normally which is more like a yip. he does this at anytime day or night. any ideas ? thank you

Posted on November 15, 2008

Laura says: Our cat of 7 years prefers to drink her water from the faucet. She will jump up into the sink and then tip something over making noise to get our attention. She wants us to turn the faucet on trickle so she can get a drink. A bowl of water is more of a play thing. She would rather dip her paw in it and then dump it over. The sink is the only time I see her drink and worry she won't get enough water if we leave her alone for a long weekend. Is there something we can do to train her to drink from bowls or a device that activates when the cat touches it?

Posted on October 27, 2008

Josephine says: My domestic male cat Pike is 4 years old. He attacks my adult daughter every time she visits. He stalks her and bites her. When we are on vacation, he attacks whoever comes to feed him in our absence. He also attacks my granddaughters, ages 2 and 5. When he bites he actually breaks the skin. One day my husband was sitting reading and he jumped up and bit his arm (breaking the skin).I do not want to give him away and need help regarding this situation. Thank you.

Posted on October 20, 2008

Steph says: Agnes - take your cat to the vet to make sure she doesn't have a UTI. I had a cat once that started doing that and her infection was so bad she was in a lot of pain and she had become dehydrated. If she is okay - maybe she doesn't like her litter or where her box is.

Posted on October 20, 2008

Stephanie says: My male cat, Jax, enjoys playing in the bed covers. We make a game of it when I change the sheets or I am making the bed. I let him know it's time to change the sheets and he jumps on the bed. As I pull the covers off the bed he chases them and then Jax wants me to make him into the bed. He stays under the fitted sheet and chases the covers as I pull them onto the bed. When he meows I help him out and thank him for being so helpful. He then gets a treat. It's a fun game.

Posted on September 15, 2008

agnes says: just in the past three months my cat has not been useing her litter box for peeing she has been going on the rugs. she uses her litter box for the other. what can i do to stop her of this thank you agnes

Posted on January 11, 2012

Karen says: I have 8 cats of various ages they all like to play still I have a 12 year old Persian would shouts and screams a lot in his old age must be the breed

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