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

Find Your Perfect Kitten

Adopting a new kitten is a major moment, as many cats are living longer lives and are remaining active throughout that period. In short, the decision you make today could affect your own life for decades to come.

In her book Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat -- Not a Sour Puss, Pam Johnson-Bennett shares five primary tips on how to quickly determine a kitten’s temperament.

1. Watch the kittens carefully to see which ones are playful, confident and friendly. These desirable characteristics will likely improve your relationship with your new kitten well through its adulthood.

2. Get close to the kitten by getting on your hands and knees near where the kitten is. Observe how the kitten reacts. If it jumps away, bites or hisses, you could be in for trouble in the future.

3. Try offering a toy, such as a feather wand, and then watch how the kitten reacts. A normal, playful response is to bat and pounce at the toy. To remain healthy, kittens and cats must exercise. Getting them to do so will be so much easier if the kitten is really motivated to play.

4. Gently pick up the kitten and hold it. Although the kitten might be a bit squirmy, you should not be bitten or attacked. That can be a reflex reaction in some fearful cats. The bad habit, if left unchecked, could make for a painful start for both of you.

5. Does the kitten want to hide? If its parents were not well-socialized, often that desire to run away from humans passes on to the kittens. A kitten that is at least willing to interact with you will usually be much better adjusted as time goes on.

If you are willing to devote care and attention to your kitten, you will likely have a devoted friend for life.

Is It Normal for Kittens to Act Hyper?

Few living creatures exhibit joy and energy better than kittens do. They can go from energetic to full throttle at a certain life stage.

Tracie Hotchner, author of the book The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know, explains that between 4 and 16 weeks of age, kittens start to demonstrate the first of two types of play: social play. This is when kittens will chase and stalk their siblings, often biting and pouncing on them -- but nothing too serious. As Hotchner humorously writes, kittens during this period will often propel themselves “in a whirling dervish, only to collapse five minutes later and fall fast asleep.”

The other type of play that occurs at around this age: object play. Like the name suggests, object play is when your kitten bites, chases, catches, carries and bats almost anything it can grab with its mouth or little claws. This type of play promotes exercise and allows your cat to learn hunting behaviors. Social play, on the other hand, teaches your kitten how to get along with others while still retaining important survival skills.

After the 16-week period, your pet will still be energetic and playful, but it should gradually start to simmer down a bit. Some adult cats are kittens at heart, though, and will continue their high-energy ways. Hotchner advises that you praise your pet for good behavior and “clap your hands to startle her for doing something you don’t like.” Other than that, Hotchner says it’s best to “ignore the bad and reward the good.”

Train Your Aggressive, Biting Kitten

This ankle-nipping problem is probably familiar to many kitten owners, including me. Kittens begin life playing with their mother and siblings, and it is during that time that they learn how to play nice. If a kitten is separated from its mother too early, it doesn’t learn this valuable skill and can act out later, even into adulthood.

According to The Humane Society of the United States, you can discourage ankle-nipping and other overly aggressive kitten behavior by doing the following:

  • Drag a fishing pole–type toy on the floor when your kitten wants to pounce. You can also try throwing a toy that will require her to chase it. The point is to redirect her attention away from you and to the toy.
  • Encourage play with a toy your kitten can wrestle with, such as a tiny stuffed animal, which you can gently rub on her tummy. She can then grab the toy instead of you.
  • Don’t yell or otherwise punish your kitten when she pounces. She won’t understand your anger. Cats have a remarkable ability to understand rewards, but not punishment. Reward her good behavior instead.
  • If you do want to say something when a kitten nips at your ankles, try a sharp, “Uh-uh,” and then offer her an acceptable toy. Don’t present the toy when she is still focused on you, or else she will consider it to be a reward.
  • Set aside time each day to play with your kitten. She wants to play with you, and not just be left alone with toys, so your quality time with her will help to use up some of that explosive kitten energy.

How to Select the Best Food for Your Kitten

Kittens come into the world head- or tail-first -- and hungry. For the first few weeks, they rely upon their mother’s milk for sustenance. It takes 12 days for their eyelids to open and about 15 days for their ears to open, so their relative helplessness in these very early stages ties them to mom.

At 3 or 4 weeks old, kittens are ready to consume solid food. What you feed it at this point can affect its future life. Food may influence its muscle tone and coat health, and it helps develop strong skin and bones, bright eyes and good digestion.

Here, Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian at the Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va., and Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams, share kitten mealtime advice.

The Difference Between Kitten and Adult Cat Food

Kittens require their own special food. “Kitten foods have to be much more nutritionally dense than regular foods due to the smaller size of the kitten’s stomach and inability to ingest large amounts,” says Nelson. Even a big bowl of regular adult cat food would not be able to properly satisfy your kitten’s nutritional needs.

Desired Kitten Food Ingredients

Protein: According to Nelson, “The most important thing when hunting for the best kitten foods is to ensure that the first ingredient is a whole protein.” That protein could come from chicken, beef, fish or other meats. Cats are obligate carnivores, so they really need to have meat from an early age on. “Meat protein provides all the essential amino acids required for the rapidly growing kitten,” says Dicke.

Nutrients found in mother’s milk: There is no proper way to harvest cat’s milk, so quality manufacturers study the components of feline mother’s milk and include them in their kitten chow. “Many of these ingredients are vitamins and minerals that would be obtained directly through the milk,” says Nelson. “Others, like DHA and ARA, are derived from fish oils and are important for brain and eye development. Taurine is supplied through natural meat sources and is very important to cardiac and vision health.”

Digestive system helpers: Dried beet pulp might sound like a funky ingredient, but it provides a gentle fiber for kittens that also comes with good vitamin and mineral content. FOS, another fiber, can also help kittens. “Kittens experience so many new things in their environment and much is presented orally, leaving the digestive system to combat and neutralize the offending substances,” says Dicke.

Kitten Food Ingredients to Avoid

Gluten: Some manufacturers use a product known as wheat gluten to boost their products’ protein content. Also known as “wheat meat,” this concoction is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until the starch dissolves. This leaves behind an elastic mass that can be flavored to taste like meat. While vegetarians work wonders with wheat gluten, some cats are allergic to wheat, and it’s just not a direct substitute for meat from animal sources, as far as cats are concerned.

Other primary vegetable protein sources: Veggies are usually cheaper than meat, so some manufacturers cut corners by using other vegetable protein sources in place of animal protein. Cats are not built to be vegetarians, so your kitten chow must have protein from a meat source.

Transitioning from Kitten to Adult Cat Food

Depending on the size and breed of your kitten, Dicke and Nelson recommend that you transition it to an adult food when your kitten is between 9 and 12 months old. The transition, says Nelson, “should always be done over a period of 7 to 10 days, slowly adjusting the ratios until the cat is fully on the new food.”

Here’s a recommended feeding schedule for this transitional period:

Day No. 1: Fill your cat’s dish with 75 percent kitten food and 25 percent adult food.
Day No. 2: Mix adult and kitten food in a 50-50 ratio.
Day No. 3: Feed your cat a mixture that’s 75 percent adult food and 25 percent kitten food.
Day No. 4: Switch to 100 percent adult formula.

As you can see, the kitten stage of life is incredibly short. Savor each moment by allowing your kitten to savor and enjoy delicious, nutritious food that will set your pet off on the right growth and health track.