The Best Games for Cats

Your cat is playful, curious and a hunter, and he wants to interact with you to show off his natural skills. Playing games with your cat is a great way to entertain him, as well as give him some extra exercise.

Cats love to chase and hunt, so it’s natural from him to want to exhibit these behaviors for you. Many cats, if given the chance to go outdoors, will actively hunt for birds and other small animals. If they manage to succeed in their hunt, cats will want to show off their conquest by dropping a “gift” at your doorstep. Your cat’s hunting skills will also likely be exhibited if there is a bug or rodent in your home. He will swat, jump around and attempt to kill the intruder.

These hunting and chasing skills can be replicated in games that you play with your cat. Dr. Jeff Werber, DVM, Medical Director for Century Veterinary Group and Chief Veterinarian for ProSense Pet Products, says cats are attracted to movement, and most games for cats capitalize on these instincts, incorporating movement and a chase into the mechanics of the game.

Many cat toys that you’ll find in the store focus on the game of the hunt, and allow you to play along with your cat. If your cat lives indoors, he won’t be able to chase real animals, so it’s a good idea to provide a substitution to entice him to play. “Typical cat toys involve tantalizing the cat with a feather, or a little mouse or rabbit hanging on a string or dangling from a pole, or a ball that circles around a container, sometimes slightly hidden, that attracts the cat's attention and inspires the hunt,” Dr. Werber explains.  

Another great option for a game to play with your cat involves a laser. Your cat will be transfixed by the red laser light and try to catch it. “The cat sees the laser as an object to be chased and hunted down,” said Dr. Werber. “It can be quite comical to watch them trying to grab the laser as it flies by them on the ground, or against a wall.” This game can keep your cat occupied for a while and also provides exercise.

Dr. Werber recommends one other game that has proven popular with cats in the past. “Cats like to lie on their backs and grab and claw at your hand as it comes near their stomach,” he said. “This is fun for them, but not so much for you unless you wear a heavy glove to protect your hands and arm. An alternative version is to stick your hand under the blanket and slowly move toward them, or away, and watch them pounce.”

If your cat loves treats, you can purchase toys that you can hide treats in, too.

It is very important to keep your cat engaged in games that are both enjoyable and a good source of exercise. Your cat will make it known if he is bored, and walk away from you or the toy. Dr. Werber says that your cat may be bored with one activity but another one might continue to entertain him. Mixing up the games and toys will help keep your cat happy.

How to get your cat to use the litter box

One of the most important things a cat owner needs to do is set up a good place for her cat to do her business. Follow these simple steps to help teach your cat where her proper potty place is, and you’ll avoid a lot of future hassles.

Placement is everything
You should set up your litter box in a place that is accessible, but that has little to no traffic or noise. Jane Brunt, DVM, executive director, CATalyst Council and founder and owner of Cat Hospital at Towson, the first feline-exclusive veterinary practice in Maryland, suggests a spare bedroom or bathroom, if you have one. “If your house has multiple floors, it’s best to have one on at least two different levels so there’s always a toilet nearby when nature calls,” she added.

Avoid putting the litter box in the basement, or near your washer and dryer, as the loud noises may scare your cat from going in there.  

Setting the stage
You can’t expect to just put the litter box down and have your cat learn what to do with it on his own -- teaching him to use the litter box is the first priority. “It’s best to initially keep the cat in a single room with food and water, it’s carrier with soft bedding inside, a scratching post and, of course, a litter box,” says Dr. Brunt. “You can show your cat the box by placing him or her in it, though cats naturally eliminate and cover their waste.”

If it seems like your cat isn’t getting it after a few tries, try helping your cat dig around in her litter box so she’s used to the texture, and if she does happen to go somewhere else in your house while she’s training, pick up the waste and place it in the box so your cat will start to associate the box with the correct area to do her business.

The best type of litter
There are many types of litter out there to choose from, but studies have shown that cats prefer clumping litter and types with activated carbon.

More information on studies about kitty litter can be found here.  
Dr. Brunt suggests having two boxes for one cat, and adding an additional box for every other cat you have in your home. “Placing them strategically around your home and keeping them clean will ensure everyone has one when they need it.”

Litter box problems
Has your cat started to soil other areas of your home and stopped using the litter box? There is usually a reason for this, but Dr. Brunt says it’s never because your cat is angry with you. “Make sure the litter boxes are scooped daily, and clean and wash the litter pans every 2-3 weeks,” she said.

Here are some ways to naturally eliminate litter box odors.

If the litter box was clean when the accident occurred, then it’s time to think about other obstacles that might be inhibiting your cat from getting to the litter box. Could you be accidently closing the door? Did you change brands of litter? “If there’s no obvious reason like cleanliness, access and familiarity, it’s time to call the veterinarian,” says Dr. Brunt. “It’s nearly impossible to tell if your cat isn’t feeling well, and there could be anything from diabetes to bladder crystals or stones to parasites or other infections, and the longer the problem persists, the more difficult it is to treat.”

If all else fails, try starting litter box training over again from scratch. Purchase a completely new litter box (because yes, cats can be picky about the type of litter box they use) and place it where your cat is comfortable going and can get to easily. “Keep the boxes clean, and if this doesn’t work you can try synthetic facial pheromone products, a diffuser plugged in near the litter box that will help the area seem more familiar through scent,” suggests Dr. Brunt.

Remember -- your cat wants to be clean just as much as you want to her stay clean. A little training in the litter box area can go a long way.

Kitten Behavior Essentials

They say moving to New York City is tough, but the biggest challenge I faced during my first few weeks was unexpected: raising a kitten I rescued from the street, weaned off its mother prematurely. The veterinarian warned me that 3-week-old Andy was too young to survive away from his mother, but to me, Andy looked like a trooper.

According to The Humane Society of the United States, there are five stages of kittenhood. As I listenened to Andy's steady breath while he slept that first night, I vowed to see him through all five.

The Neonatal Period: Birth to 2 Weeks
During a kitten’s first two weeks of life, its eyes and ears slowly open. Being with its mother is critical at this time because antibodies found in mother’s milk help to build immunity. What’s more, “if a kitten is raised without the ability to be comforted by a mom, it can begin life as a dysfunctional animal,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help (Bantam Books 1997). Uncertain of how much contact Andy had with his mom, I wondered whether his nestling in my hands was enough to ensure his well-being.

The Socialization Period: 2 to 7 Weeks Between the second and seventh week, kittens develop their senses fully and learn to run, stalk, pounce and avoid obstacles. To my relief, Andy began to do all these things, remaining healthy after a week of sleeping and bottle-feeding. His first feat was learning to jump from my bed into his own. Soon, the brave kitten preyed -- with boundless energy -- on the toys I made for him. It was entertaining to watch Andy blossom during this period, which Dr. Dodman calls “the starting point of their lives…where they learn everything before fear develops.”

Most Active Play Period: 7 to 14 Weeks After nearly two months, a kitten usually starts to scoop, paw and mouth. Andy seemed to turn into an acrobat overnight, often running as fast as he could before springing himself onto my bed. “Having gone through ‘acclimation,’ kittens continue using that talent [skills they learned in the socialization period],” says Dr. Dodman.

Ranking Period: 3 to 6 months “In this period, kittens are still continuing to learn…when to run away and when to fight,” says Dr. Dodman. Andy learned the hard way how “ranking,” or basic dominance and submission, works. As my two older felines ate side-by-side one night, he slowly crept up behind them. His small nose suddenly sniffing in their food bowls surprised them and caused Freddy, the oldest, to strike Andy on the head. Andy slumped back with his belly up and lay still on the floor, meaning no harm, while Freddy retreated into her favorite room. From then on, Andy stayed by himself more often.

Adolescence Period: 6 to 18 months
During adolescence, kitten play and exploration continues, but the onset of sexual maturity is the biggest change. It was right before this time that I handed my kitten over to new owners. There were many reasons that I couldn’t keep Andy, but his new human family was ecstatic. For an unneutered, orphaned cat, Andy was surprisingly well-adjusted.

The Secret to Good Behavior
Andy’s adjustment to his new life was not a surprise, as I had nurtured him well in the socialization stage of his life. “If you introduce almost anything during this period, whether it’s kind and gentle handling or even your dog or bird, kittens will soak in the information like a sponge,” affirms Dr. Dodman. To ensure that your own kitten grows up to be intelligent and social, follow these five critical steps, especially during the tender socialization period:

  1. Handle your kitten often Wrap one hand around your kitten’s body under its front legs and scoop the back legs with the other hand. Studies show that kittens frequently handled by people are more likely to develop larger brains.

  2. Teach your kitten to love toys, not hands Drag or throw a toy and let your kitten chase and pounce on it. A small stuffed animal will allow your kitten to wrestle the way it would with littermates instead of grappling with your feet or hands. Conduct at least two 15-minute play sessions a day.
     
  3. Introduce your kitten to strangers Teach your kitten not to avoid people by exposing it to others early on. Let your friends play with your kitten, and bring its favorite toys into the session.

  4. Actively encourage/discourage behaviors Bribe your kitten with treats when it does well. When it nips you, squirt it, away from the eyes, with water mixed with a bit of vinegar. If the play session gets too rough, abruptly end it by walking into the other room and closing the door until your cat relaxes.

  5. Avoid physical punishment Flicking or hitting your kitten to reprimand it will only teach your pet to become afraid of your hands.

With proper care and socialization, a cat’s less-than-promising fate doesn’t have to be written in stone. Raising Andy, for me, was proof of that: I was able to overturn the veterinarian’s prediction and help Andy breeze through his fifth stage of kittenhood.

Kitten Kindergarten

When it comes to pet training, dogs traditionally have had a paw up on their feline counterparts. Programs to increase a cat's socialization and training aren't considered by most pet owners and didn't exist until recently. But school is becoming the "in" thing for kittens, with the advent of kitten kindergarten.

Kitten kindergarten is the brainchild of Australian veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, who opened her own "Kitty Kindy" under a decade ago for young cats aged 7 to 14 weeks. The concept has now appeared in the U.S., where in many communities from coast to coast courses are spread out over a few weeks. These courses allow kittens to play and interact with owners and other cats. Owners also learn to care for their kittens, and behavior problems are nipped in the bud.

"People have had misconceptions about cats: that they're loners and that they're not sociable. But they are wrong," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of books on feline care, including Psycho Kitty (TenSpeed Press 2007). "It's laying a foundation for great socialization and hopefully the prevention of future behavior problems."

What Is It?
Kitten kindergartens are being offered by a variety of veterinarians, humane societies, behaviorists and other specialists. In the U.S., the programs tend to be targeted at kittens between 8 and 15 weeks old. The young felines generally must be up-to-date on shots and have a health form signed by a veterinarian saying they are in good health and have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

Steve Dale, a cat behavior consultant in the Chicago area who teaches kitten classes around the country, says that the goals of any kitten kindergarten should include getting a cat accustomed to a pet carrier, helping to socialize a cat and teaching owners how to handle, feed and play with their pets. Dale, who developed his curriculum based on Dr. Seksel's teachings and feline behavior guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, says these goals are achieved through a variety of games, drills and introductions to other cats, people and even dogs. Pet owners should also get opportunities to ask questions and learn some of the basics about having a cat at home -- Litter Box 101, discouraging scratching on furniture, diet information and grooming, among other issues.

What's the Benefit for Your Cat?
Cats, like other animals, go through an early development stage when they trust that everything in their environment is safe, including people, other pets and surroundings. For kittens, this stage generally comes between about 8 and 15 weeks of age. "Cats have this very narrow window where physiologically they are like putty, and you can teach them all sorts of things," Dale says. This is a great time for bonding with a family and becoming comfortable in a new home. But after that stage, as cats begin to explore, they can become more timid and cautious of new people, places and things.

"None of us want to find our cat ducked under the bed when we have to take her to the clinic," says Arden Moore, editor of Catnip, the monthly magazine for cat owners from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "With something like kitty kindergarten, you're starting off on the right paw, if you will. You're showing your cat that the carrier is a safe, welcoming place. The car is no big deal. And the veterinarian's office is no big deal. You're getting them used to being handled by different people and safely introduced to new environments."

Socialization to new places, people, pets and situations while a kitten is in that impressionable stage will create positive associations for the cat. If a kitten gets used to being handled by pet owners and even strangers, then it may be more receptive and relaxed at veterinary exams or routine events like getting their nails cut and teeth brushed.

What's in It for You?
Kitty kindergarten, while less focused on training tricks, helps to develop positive behaviors so that cat and owner may cohabitate in the most positive environment.

"It's creating a good relationship from the beginning between the kitten and the owner," Johnson-Bennett says. "Because it's a relationship, you need to know what the cat needs and how to provide it. Having your cat be more sociable and comfortable around people and other pets means they are less likely to hide when the doorbell rings, they're more comfortable being held and it's easier to introduce another pet into the household."

Kitten kindergarten works on a variety of levels. Brand-new cat owners can learn the basics of feeding, litter box maintenance, grooming and even playing with their pet. For more experienced pet owners, the classes can aid in socializing their pet so they have fewer adjustment issues later on when they want to bring home a dog or visit the veterinarian.

Where to Find Kitten Kindergartens
Kitten kindergartens have been opening in communities around the country. Here are some resources to find one that is right for you:

  • Check with your veterinarian Many veterinarians are taking the initiative to start these classes. "It's a great way to put a cat in a fun environment when they visit the vet, not just for the dreaded vaccinations," Moore says.
  • Talk to the local humane society These organizations also see kitten kindergartens as a positive way to reduce the number of cats that are abandoned or put up for re-adoption due to behavior problems. "Shelters really love it," Moore says. "It's helping kittens get socialized and adopted."
  • Online resources Pet experts have set up Web sites with information about kitten kindergartens. Steve Dale's Pet World Web site contains a variety of resources, as does the Web site of veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her site is called AskDrYin.
  • American Association for Feline Practitioners The AAFP has developed feline behavior guidelines that might be helpful in choosing your kitten kindergarten. The group has a Web site called CatVets.

Kitten kindergartens are a sign of change in our understanding of what cats need and what type of relationship you can have with your cat. Kitten kindergartens, Dale says, help owners to provide both mental and physical stimulation for their feline friends. Kitty can then graduate to its next stage of life, feeling healthy, prepared and confident.

Bringing Home Baby: Tips for Introducing Your Cat

You have this sweet, cuddly bundle of joy. Just looking at him brings a smile to your face. He’s so darn cute that you even forget about the early morning feedings, bathroom mishaps and random crying jags in the middle of the night. 

Then, you decide to have a baby.

So, how do you make sure your newest family member and your beloved cat get along? We have tips to help make the introductions pleasant and safe for both parties.

  1. Time. When you bring home a new baby, you will have much less time for your cat. So, in the months prior to your baby being born, as harsh as it may sound, try spending less time with your cat to get him accustomed to this inevitable change. If your cat is particularly attached to you, try having your significant other form a similar bond with the cat so she won’t feel abandoned when the baby arrives. Similarly, if mom used to be the one to do certain things -- like cut his nails, brush his fur or cuddle with him at night -- these duties should be handed off before the baby comes, as well.
  1. Space. Since your cat won’t have complete access to your lap anymore, teach your cat to sit on the floor next to you, or wait to be invited into your lap, as opposed to jumping up on his own volition.
  1. Smells and Sounds. Desensitize your cat to the new sounds and smells that accompany a baby by putting baby oil, powder or whatever products you plan to use on your own skin so your cat can smell them and have some time to get used to them.

Get your cat used to baby sounds by playing recordings or YouTube videos of crying or babbling, and turn on any noisy gadgets like ambient noise machines, swings, etc. well before the baby arrives. Try to make these experiences pleasant by petting your cat and/or giving him a treat at the same time.

  1. Health and Safety. Get your cat used to regular nail trimmings, and if your cat exhibits behaviors like swatting, nibbling or biting, it’s extremely important that you enroll him in behavior classes before the baby arrives.

Consider carrying a swaddled baby doll around the house to get the cat used to the presence of a baby, and invite over friends and family members who have babies. Always supervise any interactions between your cat and a baby, and never force it. If your cat chooses to stay away, let him, as it could be a sign that he’s stressed.

5. The Initial Meeting. Once the baby is born, ask a friend or family member to take one of the newborn’s used blankets or onesies from the hospital to put in your cat’s crate or bed so that he can become familiar with the baby’s scent. Then, when you bring your baby home, ask someone to stay outside with your baby while you go inside to greet your cat. Spend some time with him, giving him lots of love and attention, and then go outside and bring in your newest bundle of joy. Though the cat may initially run away, he will eventually come back. Allow the cat to investigate, but also set healthy boundaries. Since new babies can’t control their head movements or roll over, a snuggly cat can be dangerous, and a stressed out cat may pee in the crib. So, if he is showing interest in jumping into the crib, consider getting a crib tent to keep him out.