5 ways to ensure your cat actually likes playtime

These science tips can help you find and make toys your furry friend will enjoy.
Tabby cat on hardwood floors playing with a fabric toy resembling a mouse
Good kitties deserve some prey at the end of every play session. cottonbro studio / Pexels

Play is crucial for the social, physical, and cognitive development of many species, and even though cats are largely solitary creatures, they still need plenty of it. But people who are new to felines might not know what playtime actually looks like for these furry fellows.

Learning how to keep your cat properly stimulated is an essential part of sharing your home with them, and science can provide a couple of clues on where to start. Everyone in your household will benefit from it.

Your cat is a natural-born killer

“​​Let’s keep in mind one thing: playing for cats is very similar to predation,” says Carlo Siracusa, cat owner and associate professor of clinical behavioral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

[Related: Outdoor cats are deadly—and not just for birds and squirrels]

He explains that despite their size and cuteness, cats are deadly hunters who would naturally kill 15 to 20 prey in a day. That’s why it’s important to stimulate them with activities that mimic predation.

Use toys like a string wand with a fake mouse three to four times a day in brief intervals, Siracusa says, and make sure to end every play session by letting your cat put something in their mouth. It will be a satisfying outcome for all their efforts. 

Offer predatory puzzles 

An important lesson all predators learn is figuring out how to get prey out of their burrows. This process, just like putting a puzzle together, stimulates your cat’s brain and keeps them happy and healthy. Siracusa recommends toys like these mice-shaped treat dispensers you can hide around the house. 

You can achieve a similar puzzle-solving effect by cutting out holes in an old plastic container, or a shoe or cardboard box, and filling it with toys. Cats can then reach in and figure out how to get their treats out through the openings. 

Watch TV and play videogames with your cat

Your cat also likes their screen time, so make sure you give it to them. It doesn’t need to be special-made cat TV: online videos showing birds flying around a forest can prove quite entertaining. 

If you have a tablet, there are apps specially designed for cats that you can download in lieu of a physical toy. For example, Cat Fishing 2 (available for Android and iOS) will turn the screen on your device into a pond with one, two or three fish that will disappear as your cat taps them with their paws. There are many apps out there that do the same with mice and birds if the fish aren’t alluring enough.

Trying and failing to catch intangible prey, like fish in a digital pond or a bright red dot on the wall, can be furr-straiting for your kitten, so be sure to reward them with a few treats or some wet food on a spoon.

Give your cat some safe space to climb on

Cats sometimes jump up on the counter, knocking off potentially delicate items as they do so. But try not to be mad—it’s their natural instinct. 

“Cats tend to go high because they are prey, and observing the world from a vantage point makes them feel safer,” Siracusa explains. The floor of a busy household also brings with it the possibility of being stepped on, so allowing cats some height can be comforting. A cat tree, a cheap bookshelf, or a similarly safe place to perch will do the job. 

And if even after getting them their own observation deck your chronic climber keeps breaking your expensive porcelain collectibles, don’t punish them. It sure must be annoying to say goodbye to every fragile belonging you own, but Siracusa warns against disciplining your cat for something that’s natural to them—it can lead to aggressive behavior toward you.

You have a cat toy store right at home

Experienced cat owners know that nearly anything can be a toy for their fur babies. From cardboard boxes or crumpled papers, felines can find fun in the most mundane objects. So before you spend your paycheck at the pet store, here are some items that your cat will love and you probably already have at home. 

Toilet paper rolls

Before throwing them into the recycling bin, let your cat play with your old used-up toilet paper rolls. You can decorate them with large pom poms to make them interesting, but make sure they’re big enough so that your feline friend can’t swallow them.

Knotted up t-shirts

Cut up an old t-shirt into squares and tie a knot in the middle of each one to make them look like bowties. Throw them around and watch your cat chase them, or hide them in a box with holes so they can try to get them out. To make things more interesting, you can also pack the fabric with some catnip before knotting it.

Crumpled paper and ping-pong balls

Place crumpled paper or ping-pong balls in a shoebox with holes to make a puzzle toy. If you want, you can also throw them around the house and let your cat chase them down.

Think like a cat

To understand how to best interact with your cat, remember that they have a unique personality, and like to socialize on their own terms. 

“​​I would remind people that cats are what we call a ‘non-obligate’ social species,” says Siracusa. This means they can have a social life and share it with humans and other animals, but they’ve only evolved to learn how to do so recently. Their ancestors were solitary creatures, he explains. 

[Related: We’re surprisingly bad at reading cats’ facial expressions]

For a cat, an ideal environment is one where there’s always the option to engage socially and playfully, but where they can also abstain if they want to. Attempting to force a cat to play or preventing this type of activity when needed, may lead to adverse behavior, such as seclusion and aggression.

Keep you and your cat safe

Just as you would do with dogs and babies, don’t give your cats anything they could choke on. Swallowing something they shouldn’t could lead them to unnecessary surgery or even death. 

“If your cat has the tendency to chew on fabric or any other type of fiber or strings, then keep this stuff out of sight,” Siracusa says. That means behind closed doors. Remember—cats can jump. 

Contrary to popular belief, loose strings and yarn can also be dangerous to cats, especially kittens: they can get caught in it or potentially ingest it and asphyxiate. Keep yarn wrapped up tightly when using it as a cat toy, and if your furry buddy is on the younger side, always keep an eye on them during playtime.

But your cat is not the only one you should be careful with. Don’t use your body as a toy when playing with cats. It goes without saying that their sharp claws and teeth can scratch your skin, and those cuts mixed with cat saliva can lead to infection.