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

by Kim Boatman