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:
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.
"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.
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.
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