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Happy cat instinctively plays hunter
From time to time the format of this column will change to provide some variety and to introduce some interesting areas in the field of animal behavior. Today I'd like to talk about cats. As kittens, cats start off very active and playful. They like to jump on each other, roll around, kick, and swat. They like to explore their environment, and soon they begin to monitor their environment, sitting quietly watching for movements and alert to various sounds and smells. Basically when kittens aren't napping or eating, they're playing. Many indoor cat owners see their pets as nice companions, always around and there to be loved, cuddled and played with when it's convenient to the owner. But if you want a true companion, a better relationship, and a happier, healthier cat, you want to learn how it likes to play and how you can play with it in a way it will enjoy. In the process, you'll be taking excellent steps to help prevent some common behavioral problems in cats. All of the typical play of cats is related to the lifestyle requirements of the cat as it has evolved. Rolling and kicking and swatting mentioned earlier is the way cats develop their abilities to fight, as they may have to do in territorial disputes with other cats, or if they're being stalked by something larger or more dangerous. But even more, cat play is related to the primary need of food acquisition. Cats have evolved as hunters. Hunting for cats means exploring and/or monitoring (by sight, sound and smell) an environment, alerting to the presence of potential prey, stalking and/or chasing, pouncing, trying to grasp, and delivering a fatal bite. These are all things cats do in hunting prey and they are the things that they most love to do in play. It's what they have evolved to do, and if as an owner or companion of a cat you can provide it to them on a regular basis, you are doing them a great service. Moreover, the bond between you and your cat will invariably grow stronger. About 10 minutes per day (either all at once or divided into two 5 min. sessions) is sufficient, though you can certainly do more if it suits both you and your cat. Morning time is probably best. Avoid doing it just after you get home because this can increase the cats level of excitement in anticipation of your return, which can set it up to be depressed and/or anxious while you're away. Avoid doing this just before bedtime as this can sometimes stimulate a cat and wake it up to start getting bothersome (vocalizing, running around) while you're trying to sleep. If you vary the times of day you do these, the cat will become less expectant of it as compared to doing them at a set time. But, what is it you want to do? Ah yes, play! Here's where your imagination can be such a wonderful thing. Remember, how cats love to play. The game is hunt and you get the assignment of prey or victim. Now this doesn't mean you try to get the cat to jump on you and bite you. What it does mean is that you in one of a large number of potential ways simulate an insect flying around the room and over the cats head; or a mouse poking its head out of a hole; or a bird perched with a broken wing. Getting the cat's interest is number one. This you can do with movement or sound (e.g., of an animal digging or scratching or chirping). Try to keep yourself fairly inconspicuous, then, once you've got the cats attention and he stalks or lunges, you want to make your play object or toy flee out of reach of your cat so as to stimulate pursuit or the chase. At some point you can allow the cat to catch the play object. This is where the feel of the toy becomes more significant. If a cat is very stimulated by the feel of the object it may guard it and growl when approached. A Ball of yarn used to always evoke this response in my cat. At the other extreme, if the cat does not like the feel of the toy or the smell of the toy it may discard it immediately. If your cat grabs it and carries it off or kicks at it with its back legs or bites and pulls at it, then you know he likes it. Sometimes you can play chase with wads of paper, ping pong balls, lengths of string, yarn or ribbon along the floor, up into the air or up along a wall. Do these in different rooms at different times. Providing regular play will prevent some aggressive problems. There are many cats which bite because they are not getting enough of it and watch the owner as it starts to move then follows it down the hall increasing its speed as it goes then Ouch, hey what'd you do that for!?! He did it cause he's active and energetic and when that need for activity isn't fulfilled it builds up and becomes easily exited by any moving thing. Many cats deprived of significant social contact and/or play will begin attention seeking behaviors like meowing excessively or knocking things off shelves or doing a lot of rubbing against you among other things. Play or activity hungry cats are also the ones who suddenly in a frenzied fit race through the house, climbing up curtains, occasionally screaming or yowling, and generally seeming possessed. So play with your cats, learn what they like, experiment with new games and new toys, and keep in mind how cats like to play. Avoid the wrestling and biting games that cats can also enjoy playing. While cats do learn to inhibit their biting, and it can be fine between you and the cat, your visitors and guests most likely will not understand or appreciate the bites that you and your cat consider play.