Games Your Cat Will Love

What could be better for your cat than playing games? "The physicality of playing will keep a cat healthy," says Ellen Poole, owner and trainer at Just Tails, a feline training center in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The mental stimulation of the movement during play can keep a cat emotionally well too. A few minutes a day of play can help your cat release a lot of extra energy." 

Playtime is key, particularly with indoor cats that can sometimes feel a bit of cabin fever.  "Imagine if all you did all day was sit and sleep and wait for someone to come home," says Poole. "Cats, like humans, need to move. Just a little bit of action will make a big difference in the cat's health and attitude. Put a toy between you and your cat, rather than using your hands, because cat claws and teeth are sharp."

Poole says outdoor cats aren't as vulnerable to the dulling, obesity-causing problems that indoor cats face because they have the freedom to hunt, hide and chase. "All animals are predatory, and indoor cats especially need a healthy prey-drive outlet -- playing is a way do that," explains Poole. "Try playing with your pet just before you go to bed because cats are naturally nocturnal." Poole's logic suggests that a little activity before you go to sleep "works out" your cat's natural nighttime energy. Poole also says to avoid play immediately after mealtime. "Cats generally like to groom themselves after a meal," she says. "Think of big cats in the wild cleaning their nails and fur after a kill. That post-meal grooming is their instinct, even in a sweet-mannered indoor cat."

Wondering what to play? Check out these five new creative games to play with cats of all ages and temperaments:

Paw Hockey
Cat puzzles are designed to compel the cat to retrieve an object that's just out of reach. For example, a popular cat puzzle available at most pet stores is a rubber circle with a ball inside, and the cat bats it around to try to get to the ball, which is usually a noise maker. Says Poole: "Toys where the cat can bat are good because that's how a cat in the wild 'plays' when trapping a mouse, for example."

Mystery Lights and Shadows
You can use either of two devices for this game: a flashlight or a laser pointer. With a flashlight, turn off the lights and point the light toward the wall or even the sofa. Wiggle your fingers or dangle cat-friendly objects in front of the light to create mysterious shadows for your cat to attack. The red beam of the laser scurrying about the wall should be enough to give your cat a great workout.

Magic Wand
"I like wands that look like fishing poles with little toys on the end because you can wiggle them, and cats actually stalk the 'prey,' " says Poole. Wands vary in price and style; some have feathers on the ends, some have little charms or textured animals. Using the wand, you can pull the object along the floor and wiggle it. Cats especially love it when you bounce it above their heads. Poole says cats love to stalk because this is a natural predatory behavior. And with you controlling the magic wand, you're a part of the game.

Bubble Dance
Got 99 cents and a kitchen? Sit on the ground, or in a chair, and blow bubbles -- not too many at once -- for your cat to chase, catch and pop! ("Hey! Where'd it go?"). This is great fun for kids to play with the family cat, too.

Ball Dash
Ping pong balls work best for this game because they're light, they bounce and your cat's claws don't sink into them like they might with a ball made of fabric. This game is especially fun on a staircase, but flat ground is fine, too. Tie a long piece of string around the ball, and drag it down the stairs (so it bounces), over the sofa, across the floor -- whatever gets the ball doing more than just rolling. Be sure to let your cat "catch" the ball so it has a sense of success. Good hunting, kitty

Flicks for Felines

Flicks for Felines

Watching a cat watch TV is funny, right? And lately, you can go to YouTube and see dozens and dozens of clips showing feisty cats pawing televisions, eager to get their mitts on the squirrel, the bird or some other natural feline prey skittering about on the screen.

"Some cats even run around the back of the television trying to find the bird that flew 'off' the screen," says Steve Malarkey, creator of Video Catnip, a DVD that features two hours of feline-friendly footage. "Cats really do watch movies, and it's especially good for indoor cats. It's a lot of fun to see how the cats react to the TV."

Malarkey has sold more than 350,000 copies of Video Catnip, with a 98 percent success rate -- pet owners regularly write him with their stories of how the DVD calmed and entertained their cat. "A cat DVD is great when the owner leaves the house," says Malarkey. "Cats get bored, and some cats get stressed or worried that their mommy or daddy isn't coming back. Some cats just stare at the screen, but they are definitely watching. The DVD reduces their stress and helps with separation anxieties."

Popping in a DVD for your cat might seem odd, especially since veterinarians rarely go on record regarding the exact details of feline vision. What we do know is that cats see quick movements (just ask anyone whose cat plays with a laser light), and that critters such as butterflies, dragonflies, lizards, squirrels, chipmunks and birds are natural feline prey. Movies such as Malarkey's occupy the cat, distracting those often anxious home-alone feelings. 

Below is a list of feline-friendly flicks that are sure to get rave reviews and two paws up from your cat:

  1. Video Catnip: This bestselling DVD features two hours of footage of birds, squirrels and chipmunks.
  2. Cat-TV II: This 60-minute DVD showcases fish, mice and other rodents to entertain adventurous cats everywhere.
  3. Kitty Safari I and Kitty Safari II: These 30-minute DVDs feature all-music soundtracks, which could be a draw for the kitty that likes music played when its owner leaves the house.
  4. Lullabies and Butterflies: This 60-minute DVD is made for infants and toddlers, but cats love its quiet, peaceful nature scenes set to lullabies.
  5. Cedar Lake Nature Series: Nature's Bird Talk: This DVD features a full hour of footage of beautiful birds in their natural environment, accompanied by their melodic birdcalls.
  6. Animal Rescue: Volume 2: Best Cat Rescues: Okay, this one is about the big cats, but what domestic cat wouldn't like seeing its brave cousins make it out of sticky situations?

Clever Cat Scratching & Climbing Posts

Even though every feline has its own personality and quirks, scratching and climbing are second nature for all cats. Because this is an immutable kitty truth,  cat owners should provide a special place for their furry friend to claw, clamber and leap.  If not, you risk a lifetime of shredded sofas and knocked-over knick-knacks (as well as an unhappy companion). Fortunately, there are all kinds of new and entertaining climbers available these days -- enough to meet your cat's demands, as well as your aesthetic sensibility.

Scratching that Itch
Just as you need a good morning stretch to get your day started, your cat also needs a good morning scratch. Scratching is good for your cat's health because it removes dead skin cells from claw sheaths. It also allows your cat to mark territory with scent, and to stretch muscles and ligaments. The best post for your cat, then, is tall enough to allow it to extend to full height; the post should also be sturdy enough for your cat to lean its full body weight on.

Scratching posts are generally covered with rough, shreddable material. Sisal rope and faux fur make the least mess, although many cats prefer scratching on carpeting due to its multiple loops. (Warning: These loops could eventually be shredded and end up in tiny bits on your floor!) When the post is worn out, both sisal rope and carpet posts can be resurfaced with simple carpet tacks or nails.

Kathy Kruger of Plymouth, Michigan found that scratching posts kept her cats from destroying her wooden furniture. "When I first brought Max and Sarah home, they were doing a real number on my kitchen chairs," she recalls. "My vet recommended a sisal post, and they were immediately attracted to that." To encourage a less enthusiastic pet to scratch a new post, reward it for scratching with a treat or some extra affection; you can also rub your cat's paws on the post to deposit its scent, or spray the post with catnip.

The Thrill of the Climb
Cat castles and cat trees are full-service climbing-scratching-lounging destinations. Some are free-standing with heavy bases to prevent tipping, while others extend floor to ceiling, usually relying on a spring-tension rod to keep them upright. They offer cats open areas for sleeping, posts for scratching and multiple levels for leaping. Free-standing models are best for one-cat homes, and for small to medium-size felines. Because they offer more stability, floor-to-ceiling models are more appropriate for multiple-cat dwellings, or large, heavy cats. If your kitty is larger than average, make sure the castle doors are wide enough for it to fit through comfortably.

"When my boyfriend moved in with all of his stuff, there was suddenly less room on my tall bookcases and on top of the refrigerator, and I was worried that my cat Cleo wouldn't get the exercise he needed," says Linda Bain of Garden City, New York. "So we found a nice wooden cat tree on the Internet. It sits unobtrusively in the corner, and Cleo loves it."

House of Style
Satisfying your cat's needs doesn't mean sacrificing your sense of style. The key to combining feline and human furniture is all about blending. "Look first and foremost for color. Make sure it doesn't stand out in contrast to everything else in the room," advises Karen Powell, a Connecticut-based interior designer and co-founder of Decor and You. "Then place the post or gym strategically in relationship to the other furniture, away from the focal point of the room, and outside of the traffic flow." Before you invest, visit a variety of pet supply stores and Web sites to get a broad picture of what's available. Your cat will thank you kindly.

Bring the Outdoors In

Cats love the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the outdoors might not always love them back. With so many potential threats, ranging from automobiles to not-so-friendly animals, allowing your cat to roam free isn't smart or safe in today's environment.

But your indoor cat need not be deprived.  Whether you live in an apartment building or in a house with a yard, you can create a cat-friendly indoor-outdoor space that provides the essence of a wilderness adventure, without exposure to any of the risks.

The possibilities are endless, ranging from a small window box, to a state-of-the-art screened-in porch. The type of space you create depends on a few factors:  how much space you have available, what you can spend, how handy you are at building things, and your property's legal limitations. If you're renting, be sure to ask your landlord before making changes to the rental. And homeowners should check local building ordinance laws before adding to the home or property.

If space and money are obstacles, consider a window box -- which you can either build or buy. These are about the size of a window air conditioner, and work well for apartment dwellers. The frame is usually an acrylic material, spanned with claw-proof screen or Plexiglas for kitty's panoramic view. The most important part of installing such an enclosure is to make sure it is 100 percent secure. It must be able to withstand the weight of several cats without collapsing, weather conditions, and would-be house thieves.

If you have a yard, consider building or buying a structure you and your cat can use, such as a screened porch or patio. Using claw-proof screen will ensure that your cat can't get out and other animals can't get in. This screen is made of polyester (instead of aluminum, which animal claws can tear easily), with a nylon or vinyl coating. Cats can actually climb it without doing any damage.

Supervision of time spent in the enclosure should be a priority, too, especially in extreme weather and temperature conditions. Make sure your cat has access to a litter box, food and fresh water. You should include a floor in the enclosure, instead of placing it directly on the ground to eliminate digging opportunities. A floor helps to keep fleas and ticks out of your enclosure, and prevents kitty from accidentally eating plants or grass that might have been poisoned with run-off fertilizer or pesticides. Lush plants and grass in pots on your porch will provide the jungle environment your cat craves.

By bringing the outdoors inside, you can keep your cat safe, happy and in touch with the sounds, sights and smells of nature.

How to Train Your Athletic Cat

Cat agility competitions are helping to shatter the stereotype of cats as untrainable, nap-happy slackers. Wondering if your cat has what it takes to be training in this increasingly popular sport? For those who are interested, getting started is fairly simple.

Find a Motivating Object
Cats don’t run the obstacle course just because it’s there. They need the proverbial carrot to lead them around. Popular items are toys, feathers or laser pointers, but knowing your cat’s quirks can yield great results. As examples, one of the fastest champions, Ursa Corynne, is motivated by chasing after a drinking straw, while Sir Linus, a Supreme Grand Champion in cat agility competitions, traverses each obstacle for the reward of a kiss from his owner, Vivian Frawley. Frawley is also a big proponent of clicker training: “Cats are very responsive to this. It allows you to apply operant conditioning to shape the behavior that is desired.” Lastly, don’t use an actual carrot, since food is forbidden as a lure during competition.

Know the Rules
“Typical course obstacles include a ladder that the cats step through, tunnels, fence jumps, cones or poles to weave through, and hoop jumps,” says Susan Lee, a cat agility trainer from Michigan. “An agility official oversees the run, times it and scores the faults. A fault is a refusal to do an obstacle. A slower run with no faults may place above a faster run with one fault.”

Practice at Home
“To start, sit in your favorite chair and drag a toy for your cat to follow. Then, add a pillow for them to jump over,” says Jill Archibald, agility coordinator for The Cat Fanciers’ Association. Official obstacle courses are expensive, but makeshift ones are easy to create. “A box with two open ends becomes a tunnel; a pillow becomes a jump; three one-liter bottles become weave poles; a toy hoop propped up becomes a hoop jump,” says Archibald.

Start Young
Although there are exceptions, most trainers agree that kittens or young cats perform and respond to training the best, as do neuters or spays. “Adult males or females are usually handicapped by their hormones,” says Archibald. “They are much more interested in finding each other than in doing agility!”

Get Your Cat Used to Crowds
“Training your cat to navigate obstacles is not enough,” says Archibald. “You must also train them to be comfortable in a large, noisy venue with unusual sights and sounds because almost all competitions are held at a cat show.” While it’s true that cats with outgoing, friendly dispositions are best suited to this, recluses can also succeed. Archibald recommends a steady diet of social exercise. “Go to a cat show without agility first, and enter the cat in the Household Pet class,” she says, to get it used to the sights and sounds of shows. “Otherwise, encourage people who visit you to play with the cat. Leave the TV on or the radio. They need to become used to unusual noises.”

Lastly, Have Fun!
Experts agree that the best recipe for success is the special bond that is created through all the practice (play) with your cat. “People underestimate what cats are willing to do once you have the kind of relationship with them that makes them feel safe and excited to do new things,” says Archibald.