Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 7, 2018, by Katie Grzyb, DVM.
Exercise is an essential factor that helps to promote happiness and health in cats. One of the best ways to help your cat exercise is to spend some one-on-one playtime with them.
The Importance of Engaging in Play With Cats
Play is a vital element in your cat’s life.
“Constructive playtime for a cat is much-needed exercise,” explains Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM of Chagrin Falls Veterinary Center & Pet Clinic in Ohio. “One hour of play increases a cat’s healthy lifespan by four hours. It often improves cats’ mental health, too, lessening anxiety and destructive behavior.”
“Cats need play just like kids do. It helps them engage, deal with boredom and it helps build bonds between [family members and] other cats in the home,” says Dr. Taylor Truitt, DVM, The Vet Set, Brooklyn, New York. “Play stimulates their brains and also helps them exercise. Overweight cats are an epidemic in our homes, and as we know, exercise helps us trim [them] down. Any time I meet an overweight pet, I talk to the pet parent about playtime and burning calories.”
These are reasons enough to set aside time to play with your cats, but there’s one other very important reason why playtime is essential for them. Play is a part of a cat’s biology, Dr. Truitt adds. Play simulates the natural prey stalking instincts in cats, which helps them stay mentally fit and stimulated.
“Often when I have behavioral problems with cats, the owners are not actively engaging in playtime with their cats,” Dr. Truitt says.
The mental and physical enrichment that develops from cats at play will also help a cat transition into a family, animal behaviorist Russell Hartstein, CEO and founder of Fun Paw Care in Los Angeles and Miami, says.
“Without the proper mental and physical enrichment, play, stimulation, socialization, exercise and training, a cat—and any animal—will develop and display maladaptive behaviors and coping mechanisms that will be a problem for a parent and a cat,” Hartstein explains.
How to Exercise Your Cat and Build Your Bond
While cats may conduct their own playtime, watching shadows or climbing their cat trees, pet parents should engage their cat daily with interactive playtime.
Hartstein says that discovering how your cat likes to play and what toys and activities engage her the most is one of the fun parts of welcoming a feline into your family.
“Learning what gets them excited, fulfilled, what provides them with joy, fun and enrichment is a wonderful experience for both the parent and cat,” Hartstein says. “Learning about one another and teaching a cat to partake in play and fun is one of the joys of pet parenthood.”
Like anything, though, moderation is key. You don’t want to play with cats to the point where they are overly tired or display signs of overexertion, such as panting.
“Generally if your cat walks away, is getting agitated, angry, stressed, too intense or becoming too stimulated, you should stop playing,” says Hartstein. “Several shorter play sessions tend to suit many cats better than one longer one.”
Four 10-minute sessions a day is a reasonable guidepost, says Dr. Osborne. Keep in mind, however, that every cat is different and has their own unique exercise requirements.
Talk with your veterinarian about appropriate cat exercises for your cat’s biology, age and other factors that play a role in your cat’s physical health.
Filling Your Cat’s Toy Chest
What are the best cat toys to use to play with cats?
Like everything else, this will depend on the individual cat. Some cats will amuse themselves if you set out boxes or paper bags, says Dr. Osborne. Of course, make sure there are no staples or harmful items that may injure the cat. Your cat may also enjoy playing in piles of shredded paper or with plastic tops from water bottles.
Both Dr. Osborne and Dr. Truitt also recommend cat interactive toys like a cat feather wand or a fishing pole teaser toy for cats playing. These toys will give you time to play and bond. Dr. Truitt especially likes the KONG fishing pole teaser cat toy. She doesn’t recommend laser toys that don’t allow cats to grab onto anything.
Dr. Truitt says that toys that allow cats to “hunt” for a prize, such as the Smart Cat Peek-a-Prize toy box, are always a fun way to engage your cat in play.
Consider playing with your cats at regular times of the day, says Dr. Osborne. “As most kitty owners know, cats love rituals, so even play with them right before meals,” she said. “Playtime right before meals improves a kitty’s appetite. If you make it a habit of playing before feeding, the kitty will know it’s time to eat and [will] be ready.”