Cats Just Want to Have Fun

1 cats and play-feather toy

By understanding your kitten’s penchant for play, you can create and interesting and simulating environment for your pet.

By Virginia Parker Guidry

A kitten has few characteristics more captivating than its playfulness. Watch any kitten, or group of kittens, and you’re sure to see some serious fun rolling, racing, chasing, pouncing, batting, leaping nonstop, at high speeds like a streak of lightning through your living room, up the stairs, down the stairs and into the kitchen.

Yes, watching kittens play is a kick. However, there is a slightly serious side. Physically, play strengthens muscles, develops eye-paw coordination and keeps kittens fit, toned and at a proper weight.

And, play may actually help a kitten’s brain develop, according to veterinary behaviorist Vint Virga, DVM, in Ithaca, N.Y. “[Play] facilitates the development of neurological pathways that are associated with hunting behavior, social behaviors and other behaviors.”
Different Forms of Play
The definitive answer as to why kittens play is still pending. However, researchers speculate that play is the way kittens experiment with normal, adult, feline behaviors such as hunting, social interaction, sexual behaviors and evading predators.

“Play is a very important mammalian behavior,” said veterinary behaviorist Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, in Norwell, Mass. “It has many functions, but we think the most important is that it allows the young animal to practice behaviors that will become important as part of its adult repertoire.”

There are two primary types of kitten play: object play and social play. Initially, kittens engage in group or social play and, as they develop, progress toward solitary, object play.

Patrick Melese, DVM, a veterinarian in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., said that social play which involves chasing, rolling, pouncing, and leaping starts at about 3 weeks of age with gentle pawing and progresses to biting.

It peaks by about 12 weeks of age, then declines toward week 16 when there seems to be less desire for social contact with other cats.

Initially, social play involves multiple kittens (three or more), but after 8 weeks of age most social play is between pairs. As adults, not all cats will play socially.

Object play looks similar, but involves an individual kitten chasing an inanimate object, such as a ping-pong ball. Object play increases at around 7 to 8 weeks of age and tends to continue into adulthood.

“Object play predominates by 16 weeks but by 19 to 20 weeks, object play actually doubles in males compared to females of the same age,” Schwartz said.

“Motor patterns for social and object play are somewhat different,” Melese said. “Repeated motor patterns are common in object play but rare in social play.”

Interestingly, male and female kittens tend to play differently. According to Schwartz, males are more likely to engage in object play. “Females tend to be more tolerant of group situations, so they may be more prone to group play.

“We know that male kittens, from a very young age and onward, are more exuberant in play; they’re certainly rougher,” Schwartz said. “I think that’s a guy thing.”
Toys, Toys, Toys
Toys are a great way to support your kitten’s need for stimulating play. It is best to try different types to determine which kind your kitten prefers. “Every cat has a tendency to like one toy over another,” Schwartz said.

Kitten owners should consider their individual cat’s personality and figure out what might be stimulating and interesting to the cat. “If we want our kitty cats to have environmental and social stimulation, it behooves us to think about what we want to do this week for our kitty cat,” Virga said.

Virga suggests creating a chest filled with a variety of toys. Keep the chest hidden and rotate the toys in and out of your kitten’s play routine, so the kitten is less likely to get bored. He also suggests shopping for toys that offer different visual, auditory, tactual and olfactory stimulation.

Also, keep playtime safe and hazard-free. Be aware that there are toys on the market that are potentially dangerous. “Not all of them are safe,” Schwartz said.

Avoid toys with parts that could be swallowed, such as small bells, ribbons, twine, and rubber bands. Check toys for sharp edges that could poke, prick or cut. Toys should be too large for your kitten to swallow, and nontoxic if accidentally ingested.

“Kittens should not be allowed to play with plastic bags or aluminum foil,” said veterinary behaviorist Lynne Seibert, DVM, clinical resident at the University of Georgia Animal Behavior Service.

Remember to observe your kitten’s play, and be wary of any possible dangers. “Supervise your kitten with any new toy,” Seibert said.
The Human Play Pal
It is important for kitten owners to protect themselves from little claws and teeth. Young kittens do not usually inflict much damage, but serious injuries can occur when they grow and continue to attack their owner’s body in play.

To prevent overly exuberant or inappropriate play, use toys that keep the object of play at some distance from the human body. Prevent the kitten from learning to target hands or feet. And, do not play games that tease or frustrate the cat.

“Even though we’re using the word ‘play,’ it doesn’t diminish the potential severity of the aggression,” Virga said. “I’ve seen quite a few cases of kitties putting people in the hospital.”

To better understand your kitten’s world view, Virga encourages owners of indoor cats to think about what it might be like to stay indoors for several weeks. With little change in the environment or stimulation of some kind, “cabin fever” is sure to develop.

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