There’s nothing coy about a dog: When your Lab wants to play, he’ll drop his tennis ball at your feet and shoot you a big, goofy grin.
But cats tend to play things a little cooler. Our feline friends can be harder to read, and are above (as in far, far above) begging for a feather toy. In other words, they’re no basic Bichons. “Dogs are more nuts and bolts, whereas cats appreciate the subtleties in life,” says cat behaviorist and author Carole Wilbourn. “If cats were humans, they’d be the artists and writers among us.”
Known as “The Cat Therapist,” Wilbourn co-founded the first feline-only veterinary practice in New York City in 1973, and has since traveled the world helping clients better understand their pets. Here, she translates our kitties’ cues for play.
Is your cat meowing as you read this? Pawing at your leg? Draping himself across your laptop, perhaps? Some cats are upfront about their need for attention, and these are signs that a good play session may be in order.
Although this “needy” behavior can be annoying, there’s a reason he’s being so persistent—cats need engaging, interactive, energetic play as much as dogs. As lovely as a nap on the windowsill may be, it doesn’t make for a very interesting day. “Indoor cats simply don’t have the kind of life and entertainment that an outdoor cat has,” says Wilbourn. “It’s up to us to enrich their lives and create the best ‘catmosphere’ that we can for them.”
If your cat is the frisky, forward type, pretty much any toy will do. “You can pick up and throw anything for a cat who really wants to play,” says Wilbourn.
To create a more stimulating environment, consider spicing things up with cat tunnels, a cat tree, and cat perches. Not only will your kitty appreciate it, but you may be able to read or surf the web in peace.
On the other hand, a cat who isn’t enjoying enough playtime may make himself scarce. “Some cats will go to the other extreme and sulk or look dejected,” says Wilbourn. “This is their way of objecting to their treatment.”
While it’s important not to force play on your cat—perhaps he’s had his fill for the day, or maybe he’s craving some alone time—your grumpy cat may simply be bored. Treat him to something special, such as a game of fetch with a catnip-stuffed mouse toy, to get him to come around.
He’s packing on the pounds
If your cat is tipping the scales, he may require more playtime and fewer snacks. Many cat owners substitute food for play, creating unhealthy habits. “If your cat is annoying you, it’s much easier to just put food down than to play,” says Wilbourn. “Then, when the cat wants attention, he starts going to the food dish instead of you—it’s instant gratification.”
First things first: Consult with your veterinarian to devise an appropriate diet for your overweight kitty, and to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Then, introduce more interactive play into your cat’s day. Feline foodies may especially enjoy treat-dispensing toys and puzzles. Not only do they incorporate a little exercise into mealtime, but they force cats to eat slowly instead of gobbling down dinner.
He’s scratching your furniture
There’s nothing more deadly to a couch than a cat with too much energy. Skimp on the play sessions, and your furniture may suffer.
“If cats aren’t getting enough play, it can affect their wholemodus operandi, and their usual habits can change,” says Wilbourn. “They can become destructive and aggressive because they have all of this bottled-up energy.”
Even the most deluxe cat toys are far cheaper than replacing your sectional. Invest in a variety of furry mice, wand toys, roller balls, and textured playthings to keep your kitty engaged. And be sure to provide scratching posts that are more interesting than your chairs. Quality, sturdy posts in a variety of sizes should satisfy your cat’s natural need to claw.
He’s attacking your ankles
Your cat’s wild ancestors spent large portions of their days hunting for food—and old habits die hard. “Even though our cats are very domesticated, they still have wild instincts,” says Wilbourn. “In the wild, cats aren’t served food, and they’re all born with the desire to hunt.”
A cat who can’t entertain his inner predator will find somethingto hunt, whether it’s your ankles or your dog or a toy. To appeal to his wild side, stock up on feather toys that look and move like birds. Playing keep-away is fun, but be sure to let your cat catch his “prey” once in awhile.