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.

Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

This scenario may be all too familiar: An unsuspecting cat owner comes home from work to find that his or her once well-behaved feline has tipped over a houseplant, batted everything off the home office desk and pulled a foot-long thread from the living room curtains. What’s the scoop? Simply put, kitty could be bored.

Understanding Cat Boredom
To understand the behavior of a cat, consider what goes on in zoos. Several decades ago, zoo animals were often just given food and water and left to sit in their cages. Now, zookeepers devise numerous enrichment activities, encouraging the animals to hunt for food and even playing games with them.

“Today’s cats are like yesterday’s zoo animals -- they stay home without much to do and rarely use their instincts to hunt, explore, play and interact,” says Steve Duno, a pet behaviorist in Seattle and author of Be the Cat (Sterling 2008). “As a result, they get a little nutty.”

While bored cats can exhibit destructive and antisocial behaviors, they might also demonstrate less obvious symptoms, including depression, excessive grooming, skin disorders, hypervocalization, house-training accidents, overeating and excessive sleeping. 

Inspiration From Zoos
So what’s the solution? “Open your own zoo, so to speak, by offering your cat behavioral and environmental enrichments,” Duno says. However, instead of overwhelming your cat with these enrichments, introduce a few at a time.

In addition, don’t adopt a kitten to entertain your cat, especially if your cat is older and not used to other animals. “You’ll only create more problems,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (Cattledog Publishing 2009).

Cures for Kitty Doldrums
If your own cat seems stuck in a dreary rut, and any underlying health problems have been ruled out by your veterinarian, our experts advise the following:

Make your pet work for its food By nature, cats are hunters, which is why constantly putting their food in bowls or free-feeding may cause boredom. Instead, make it a game for them to find food. Dr. Yin recommends cutting 2-inch-high openings in a shoe box, making sure the openings go to the bottom of the box. Place your cat’s dry food under the box and let your furry pal bat it out. You can also use balls that hold food.

Train your cat “If you’re not free-feeding, cats are easy to train, and the training provides stimulation,” says Dr. Yin. She likes to train cats to “sit” and “come” for when they’re hungry enough to eat treats. To train your cat to sit, hold a treat away from your pet and wait until your cat sits. Then put the treat right up to your cat’s mouth and give it to your pet. If that doesn’t work, push the treat from your cat’s nose to right above its head, which should prompt a seated position. If your cat remains seated, reward with another treat. Now walk away while saying “come.” Your cat should follow you. Repeat the instructions for sitting to return your cat to a seated position. Be sure to reward with treats when warranted. Later, you can use these commands to distract your pet whenever it misbehaves.

Put kitty on the trail If possible, hide food -- or other smell-good items -- around the house to stimulate your cat’s olfactory sense and to excite its hunting drive. For instance, leave scent trails throughout the house. Drop a little lavender oil or cinnamon in various places, leading your cat to a treat. You can also hide catnip or place an evergreen bough out of reach of your cat.

Provide visual stimulation If possible, hang bird feeders near windows or a mobile from the ceiling -- out of paw reach -- for your cat to view. An aquarium or cat-themed DVDs are good for entertainment and companionship. You can also try rearranging the furniture to spark kitty investigations.

Boost the fun factor Set up scratching posts and leave out interactive toys. One caveat? “Rotate the toys so your cat doesn’t get bored seeing the same one,” Duno says.

Your cat should respond almost immediately to these enrichment activities. Not only will you notice that it is more interested in its environment, but you should also start to see behavioral improvements. Duno concludes, “Now that you’ve followed the lead of today’s zookeepers and provided a more stimulating environment for your cat, you’ll probably even notice that your cat is happier and more content with life.”

Cats Sacrifice Efficiency for Smooth Moves

Cori Elson, like many cat owners, loves observing her cat, Rita. “She walks around like she’s on a stealth mission, moving so elegantly,” says Elson.

It turns out that scientists also enjoy cat gazing. Recently, researchers from Duke University’s evolutionary anthropology program observed and measured the gaits of six felines. They determined that cats evolved to move differently than the other mammals we most commonly observe, namely humans and dogs.

"It is usually assumed that efficiency is what matters in evolution," says Daniel Schmitt, Ph.D., a Duke associate professor of evolutionary anthropology. "We've found that's too simple a way of looking at evolution, because there are some animals that need to operate at high-energy cost and low efficiency."

Below, Dr. Schmitt explains how these findings apply to your cat.

Survival of the Fittest
Animals that need to travel long distances in order to find safety or food move in energy-saving ways. Humans, dogs, large birds and horses use gravity to their advantage when they walk and run. "Our centers of mass rise and fall when we walk,” explains Dr. Schmitt. “When we do that, humans and other animals minimize energetic costs. It's an evolutionary miracle in my view.”

The movement of our furry feline friends is a different sort of miracle. Dr. Schmitt and his team of researchers found that when cats slink close to the ground, they walk in a way that the movements of their front and back ends cancel each other out -- a good core workout to be sure but not the way to use gravity to one’s advantage or to conserve energy.

"The total movement of their bodies is even, and they flow along," describes Dr. Schmitt. "If they're creeping, they put each foot down in an even fashion. We think it has to do with stability and caution.”

It also has to do with putting food on the metaphorical table. "Cats need to creep up on their prey,” says Dr. Schmitt. “Most scientists think that energetic efficiency is the currency of natural selection. But here we've shown that some animals make compromises when they have to choose between competing demands."

What This Means for Your Cat
Your feline shares the same basic movements with wild cats, even though it may just stalk a toy mouse instead of big game. The stealthy, energy-inefficient way it moves when on the prowl causes it to expend many calories. That, in turn, means it needs to consume many calories.

The current obesity problem among domestic cats may, in part, result from the fact that such house kitties no longer inhabit the environment in which they evolved -- an environment of daily, high-intensity workouts. A two-cat household -- or one with enough cat trees and toys to keep your furry friend in motion for part of its day -- can help keep your pet in fine shape.

Walk This Way
Because a cat’s gait is theoretically important to its survival, an impaired gait is always a sign of a problem. If you notice Fluffy looking unsteady or walking without his usual fluidity, make an appointment with your veterinarian. All of these symptoms are typical signs of middle-ear disorders, like ear infections or punctured eardrums.

As for Rita, she seems to take her gracefulness for granted. “Sometimes when I’m watching her, I swear she looks at me like I’m crazy,” Elson says. “I guess my walk isn’t as fascinating to her -- unless I’m moving toward her with treats!”