The Importance of Play for Cats: Insights from a Cat Behaviorist

How understanding cats led me to understand the importance of play

by Dr Mikel Maria Delgado, PhD

I didn’t intend to be a cat behaviorist.

I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I loved cats from a young age, but never aspired to being a veterinarian. But several years after dropping out of college, I found myself thinking about cats as a career.

When one of my cats passed away, I started volunteering at a local animal shelter, hoping to get more “cat time.” A few months later, I came home from a shift at the shelter, sat at the dinner table with my boyfriend and said, “I think I want to be a cat behaviorist.”

Why was cat behavior calling to me? Being in an animal shelter exposed me to hundreds of cats – each of whom had their own unique response to being in an animal shelter. Some were terrified, some were so stressed they would bite and scratch, and some seemed to be rolling with the major life change like it was no big deal. What explained these differences in their behavior? I realized that I wanted to better understand cats, and perhaps more importantly, understand why they ended up in the animal shelter in the first place.

I read every veterinary textbook I could find on animal behavior, attended whatever workshops were available, was mentored by behaviorists on the shelter staff and eventually turned that volunteer job into a paying gig. As part of that work, I helped with our behavior hotline, a call center where people could get free help when they were experiencing a behavior problem with their cat. We got dozens of calls every week.

Cats fighting, cats peeing outside the litter box, cats biting and scratching their humans and waking them up at all hours of the night. These were the things that led people, desperate for resolution, to call our hotline. Although there are multiple reasons that cats present behavior challenges for their humans, there was one thing that came up over and over again: their cats were bored.

After eight years at the shelter, I left to start my cat behavior consulting business, where I could offer people personalized in-home assistance. I also decided to pick up where I left off with my education: I finished my undergraduate degree, and then completed a PhD studying animal behavior. That led to a research position at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, where I researched the behavior of cats and kittens.

Through all these experiences, hands-on time with shelter cats, hours spent with cat owners, and as a scientist studying the ins and outs of animal behavior – one topic continued to call to me: play.

Many people don’t stop to consider that most animals play – and need play — but researchers have actually been studying animal play for decades! Every species studied, from bugs to octopuses to birds and beyond, has found a way to play. Play has likely evolved for a reason – it’s good for all of us! Play allows animals to practice life skills, explore their environments, develop dexterity and learn about important things like hunting, fighting, and mating.

With shelter cats, I found that play helped them come out of their shell and feel confident and calm. With my clients, playing with their cats prevented feline boredom and reduced many of the unwanted behaviors that they were seeking help with – but so few humans thought to play with their cats in the first place.

What I hear repeatedly: “Oh he has toys everywhere that he ignores,” and “my cat just doesn’t play.” But I am always able to help my clients tease out the play behavior in their cats, by helping them realize two things:

  • for cats, play and hunting are the same thing, and
  • play is good for cats!

When cat owners realize these two things, they understand that the best way to get our cats to play is to mimic the hunting experience. By moving interactive wand toys appropriately (like the birds and mice our cats would hunt), we can capture and keep our cat’s interest in play. A moving feather wand is much more exciting than a crumpled ball of paper gathering dust on the floor (although some cats will enjoy playing with that too!).

And once we see the benefits of play – the fun it provides for our cats, and how it can help maintain our bond with them – we are more motivated to keep it up! It can even be fun for us.

Cat play has become my “passion project”: I’ve written scientific papers, created a free handout, and now published a book about it. That is because I truly believe that it is one of the most important ways we can make our cats happy. When we speak of the wellbeing of animals, especially those we keep in some form of captivity, we emphasize the importance of allowing the expression of natural behaviors. This is why we must play with our cats.

All cats are born with the capacity to hunt, whether they spend time outdoors or not. They have evolved as super predators, and domestication has not meddled with that behavior. Playing with our cats allows them to tap into that hunting instinct, and allows them to truly be cats.

As someone who has spent over twenty years studying cats, helping thousands of cat owners have better relationships with their cats, I can honestly say that while there is no magic wand to fix behavior problems, a feather wand can be very powerful!

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