The Reasons Why Cats Play With Toys

How and Why Cats Play

Photo of Kitten Playing With Feather Toy
Kitten Playing With Feather Toy. Getty Images / Benjamin Torode

Kathy sent several terrific questions about cat play and cat toys and I offered to take a shot at answering. Some cats are more playful than others--some won't play at all. Every feline has individual preferences but there are some generalities.

How Cats Play

“We're owned by a pair of Siamese whose demands for toys and play are insatiable,” writes Kathy. “Therefore I'm up at all hours trying to devise and make new toy sensations.

Flying Rat, Leather Feather, Woolly Slug and Crazy Banana are all now uncool and don't open a little blue eye. What I'd like to ask is if you can give me a steer in terms of the actual parameters of cat play? Here's a short list of what I'd love to know.

Kitty Make Believe?

“How real is the game? Are they really stalking the shapeless lump of well-chewed fluff or are they humoring me?”

Amy answers, "Cat love knows no bounds so I wouldn’t rule out them humoring us clueless humans. Maybe they don’t want to hurt our feelings when we go to such lavish extremes to provide entertainment. Or maybe (cue the sneaky-scary music) the real game is getting humans to act like silly fools!

"In any event, my best answer is—a little of both. Cats know that lifeless fluff won’t put up a fight, and they do often seek out people to help them in their games. Kitty play mimics hunting behaviors. The feline stalk-and-pounce is triggered ultimately by motion.

So a sound…ultrasonic squeaks of mice or startled humans…gets their attention, but the game doesn’t commence until it MOVES."

Selective Vision?

“Can they not see the thin twine or fishing line that it dangles from, or do they choose to ignore it?”

Amy answers, "Cats have pretty good vision and their acuity is close to that of people.

They probably have better “near” vision than some of the longer-nosed breeds of dogs. But some Siamese and most kitties as they age have difficulty focusing on anything that’s very near to them. Depending on how fine the string, and how exciting what’s at the end, it’s probably not all that important to them. After all, I don’t really care how the gas makes my car go, I’m just interested in the result that it gets me to-and-fro. Cats probably don’t care all that much about the mechanics or the strings that connect to the lure. “Make it MOVE!” is the focus."

How "Real" Should It Be?

“Is the toy more exciting the more it looks/acts realistic or don't they care?”

Amy answers, “Yes. The more realistic it moves or looks, the better. Cats do care. In fact, some studies indicated that the right shape proved particularly enticing. A bottle that had a “neck” similar in shape to that of a prey animal garnered more kitty attacks than other shapes, for instance, with cats targeting this “neck” area as they would the rat. Some of this behavior simply seems to be hardwired.

Do They Know It's A Game?

“In the game, am I an honorary Siamese, a tame human or just wallpaper? I often wonder whether they're so caught up in the game that to them it’s sheer coincidence that I'm there at all.

Do they know it's me pulling the strings?”

Amy answers, “You are an honorary Siamese if you become the target. That is, when your hand, foot, hair, or other appendage becomes part of the game as in play aggression, then the kitty accepts you as a full partner in the rough-and-tumble. But when you’re simply the “gas” that fuels the engine making it MOVE, you might as well be wallpaper. That said…these kitties have great affection for the wallpaper that makes it MOVE, and will associate you with the fun stuff and good feelings engendered by the game. Many of the cats do, indeed, realize that the fun doesn’t happen unless you are there, and it stops once you turn off the gas.