How to Use Interactive Cat Toys
First, imagine your living room or den is about to be transformed into a hunting ground. The sofa, chairs, and tables will now become trees, bushes, rocks, and other things that the cat can hide behind. If you have a big, open space, scatter some pillows, cushions, or even an open paper bag to provide additional cover for your little predator. A common mistake made by well-meaning owners is to play with their cat by dangling the toy in front of her. The cat bats at the toy repeatedly. She sits up and appears to almost box the toy. Although this play method may look amusing and seem as if she’s having fun, it isn’t a natural form of cat playing/hunting.
Remember that playtime is supposed to be a make-believe hunt. What self respecting prey would hover in front of the cat and hang around to be repeatedly batted? The cat ends up just using reflexes instead of using her best tool—her brain. This method of playing will only serve one purpose—it’ll annoy your cat. Another playtime mistake I often see is that the owner keeps the toy out of the cat’s reach during the entire game. It becomes a marathon race throughout the house with the cat never able to grasp even one paw on the prey.
Cats don’t chase to exhaustion, they silently stalk and ambush when they’ve gotten close enough. In the wild, a cat uses every rock, tree, and bush for cover as she inches closer to her prey (that’s where your sofa, chairs, table, and cushions come in). Therefore, much of her efficient hunting technique involves her patience, planning, and precision.
Your cat has incredible stealth and she wants to make good use of that during playtime. Play with your cat in a way that’s natural and satisfying to her. Use your toy to simulate the way prey would truly move in a real hunt: it would get the heck out of there and run for cover. Move away from the cat, not toward her. Movements going across your cat’s visual field are easier for her to see and movements going away from her strongly trigger her prey-drive. Movements coming toward her are confusing, more difficult to see, and potentially viewed as threatening.
Guide the toy over to a hiding place and then entice your cat by letting it just peek out. Think prey! Because the purpose of the game is for the cat to have fun, not become frustrated, don’t frantically wave the toy around at the speed of light, out of reach. Let her have many successes. If she grasps it in her paws, let her savor the victory and then gently try to get it away.
Always put all interactive toys away in a closet, out of kitty’s reach, when the game is over so she won’t chew on the stringed parts. Try to emmulate the natural intensity curve of a real hunt.
For example, when you work out you have a warm-up, the actual exercise, and the cool-down. Your playtime should provide this as well. Don’t play like crazy with your cat, ripping around having a grand time, and then, discovering it’s time to leave for work, suddenly ending the game. If she hasn’t had enough opportunities to capture and kill her prey, she’ll be left frustrated. A cool-down will leave her satisfied and content.
To cool kitty down, begin to move the prey as if it’s becoming injured and allow the cat to capture it. I know that in the real world the bird very often gets away, but with you as the producer/director of this hunt, you can let your cat win every time. That’s how you inspire confidence in your cat, by allowing her to be the Mighty Hunter. So, when you feel it’s time to end the game, begin to let your prey slow down. When your cat has achieved her great capture, reward her by either serving her dinner or giving her a treat—the hunt and then the feast. You’re going to have one happy kitty.
When to Play
For play sessions to be most effective and have long-term positive effects, they should be a part of your daily schedule. Ideally it would be great if you could fit in two sessions a day (ten to fifteen minutes each, or whatever your schedule will allow). I can hear you now: “Where am I going to find this extra time each day?” If you can’t fit in a half hour a day for your cat, maybe you shouldn’t be a cat owner. This little creature’s whole world revolves around you. Surely you can squeeze in fifteen to thirty minutes a day to bond with her. It’s amazing how, if you really try, you can become very adept at doing two things at once. Combine watching television in the evening with a playtime. Talk on the phone and play with your cat. Read three or four fewer e-mails at night and spend that time playing with your cat. The key is to play every day with your cat. Whether it’s five minutes, ten minutes, or forty-five minutes, your cat needs that stimulation and activity every day.
INTERACTIVE PLAY TIME TIPS
- If you’re using a birdlike interactive toy, remember to incorporate frequent landings into the game. Birds don’t fly all the time, they also walk. This gives your cat time to plan.
- Frequent freezes in action, with the prey staying absolutely still, can be very exciting. This is the time the cat thinks and plans her next move.
- Don’t forget sound effects. I’m not talking about bird chirps or rodent squeaks, but the little sounds of the toy slightly tapping on the floor or the subtle sound of it inside a paper bag.
- Vary the speed of your movements—not everything should be fast. Just barely quivering the toy will drive your kitty wild!
- You’re not conducting a kitty marathon here, so don’t exhaust your cat. Her sides shouldn’t be heaving and she shouldn’t be gasping for breath. If you get her too worked up, she won’t have the opportunity to plan and stalk. Remember, this exercise should be mentally, as well as physically , rewarding. Whenever she gets the toy in her mouth or paws, allow her to savor each victory for a few seconds.
- Reward her with a treat or serve dinner after the game. She caught her prey: well done!
Unless you’re using specific play sessions to work out behavior problems (see section later in this chapter), I’d recommend that the first session be in the morning before you leave for work, because after you go, your kitty will be sleeping on and off for the entire day.
The second session should then be in the evening.
A third session right before bedtime will help a cat who tends to keep you up at night with her after-dark activities. A kitten may require more play sessions during the day but of shorter duration. She may play like a little maniac for five minutes and then go off to sleep. A kitten needs playtime, but she also needs frequent little naps. Don’t exhaust her. Schedule your play sessions to coincide with your particular kitten or cat’s active times. Don’t wake her up to play (especially a kitten), unless you’re dealing with a depressed or sedentary cat who sleeps twenty-four hours a day.