Signs of a healthy cat and how to keep your cat healthy
Why cats play
Your cat’s playful behaviour can be adorable! Kittens start to play from four weeks old, spending most of their time wrestling with other kittens as they figure out the social pecking order, and from the age of seven to eight weeks old, they’ll turn their attention to predatory play with inanimate objects. These are all signs of a healthy cat.
Benefits of exercising your cat
Playing for just 20 minutes a day provides lots of mental stimulation and important exercise for your cat, plus you’ll be strengthening the bond between you both. Play is particularly important for indoor cats to make sure they use up the energy they’d normally use for patrolling their territory and hunting prey. Indoor cats might need a longer play time or a couple of play sessions spread across the day.
- Peak activity time for kittens and cats is in the early morning and in the evening. Play with your pet before you go to bed so your kitten is worn out and will be ready to sleep when you are.
- Kittens often play alone and occasionally seem to spook and race away, as if pursued by an invisible friend – this is totally normal!
- Toys are fun, but interactive play is also entertaining and one of the best ways to keep your kitten or cat healthy and responsive to you. Make sure your cat always has toys available, but keep some away for your own playtime together – your cat will think these toys are particularly special. Remember, never leave your cat or kitten unsupervised with fishing toys or other toys with a length of string as these can be dangerous. Any toys left with your cat should be safe, with no small parts that could be chewed and swallowed.
- Solitary kittens may play more roughly with their owners as they only have you to play with.
- Never encourage pouncing on or playing with your hands or feet. Although this may be fun for kittens, these habits can last into adulthood and this can encourage aggressive behaviour to humans in the future.
- Set aside time for at least two good play sessions a day. With young indoor cats who live alone, you need to activate their 'stalk-chase-pounce' hunting behaviour up to 30 times per day to keep them feeling fulfilled. But if you have more than one cat and they enjoy playing with each other, or if your cat is older and less active, it can be less.
- The key to getting cats interested in playing is to understand their prey. Your cat will be far more interested in a toy if it is wiggling under a sofa or a cabinet, is hidden under a mat or makes sudden darting movements. Make the toy behave as a mouse would!
The best games tend to be those involving toys, which don’t need to be expensive. Use feathers or cloth strips dangling from sticks, catnip-filled mice, or wind-up toys. Consider installing an indoor climbing frame incorporating a scratching post, as well.
Redirecting playful aggression
If your kitten is keen on attacking your ankles, try to re-direct this behaviour onto their toys, instead. If you have just the one kitten, you might be tempted to get another to solve this playful aggression. That might work, but it might not. Two kittens will often keep each other physically occupied, but you could just as easily end up with two predators instead of one! Consult your vet or a behaviourist for methods to prevent play aggression towards humans.
- A bucket filled with crumpled paper or ping-pong balls can make a useful distraction. When your kitten attempts to stalk you, throw a ball downstairs for them.
- Leave a large paper bag on the floor for diving into and ripping to pieces, but don’t use plastic bags and cut off any handles that could get caught around your cat's neck.
- Cardboard boxes to jump in and out of are also fun. Glue several boxes together, linked by peepholes, for kitten hide-and-seek, and put a ball or mouse toy inside for extra excitement. These are great cat exercise toys as they encourage your cat to play and explore – and it’s fun for you to watch them bobbing up and down, too!
- Make a sack of fabric stuffed with dried catnip, which drives some cats wild!
- Try dangling a 'fishing rod' toy with feathers or bells at the end of a string.
- Some cats enjoy chasing and jumping at the light beams from a small flashlight or laser pointer.
Once you've finished playtime, put the toy out of sight to keep things exciting when you bring it out again. You'll notice that your cat's favourite games will probably be a playful variation of their natural hunting instincts: 'mouse pounce', 'fish scoop', 'bird swat' and 'play fighting'.
For more ideas and games to play with your cat, read our guide to playtime with cats.
Catnip is a natural herb and completely safe, and it can really supercharge your play session! Most cats go wild for catnip, although others will not be affected by it at all. Some cat toys contain the herb, or you can buy it from pet shops to renew your cat's interest in a toy you already have at home. You can also grow your own catnip: just make sure that it’s the correct, cat-safe, herb. Catnip sensitivity begins in most kittens when they’re around four months – try applying it to scratching posts to encourage use.
Why are some cats more active than others?
Some cat breeds have a reputation for snoozing a lot of the time, while others are generally known for their active attitudes. Pure breeds with reputations for high activity include Siamese, Abyssinian, Oriental and Turkish cats, while more languid cats include the Persian, Himalayan, British Shorthair and Ragdoll breeds. But there are many active and fun moggy kittens in rescue centres and shelters just waiting for homes and a new play partner!
Cats are just like us when it comes to exercise: some are simply more active than others. However, it’s not normal for your cat to sleep all the time and to be uninterested in interacting with you. Consult your vet if your cat is very inactive as this may indicate a medical problem. In older cats, inactivity is often the only sign of osteoarthritis and they might also be reluctant to play if they have a heart or respiratory condition, so talk to your vet to put your mind at ease.
Is my cat healthy?
You spend the most amount of time with your cat, so you’ll have a good idea of what’s normal or not. If you think something might be wrong, speak to your vet straight away. You can also get a basic idea of your cat’s health with our handy guides on health tips for cats, excessive weight in cats and assessing your cat’s body condition.
Stay active to keep your cat healthy
Overweight kittens can easily become overweight cats, and fat cats aren't healthy cats! Overweight cats are more likely to suffer from painful osteoarthritis and conditions such as diabetes and urinary problems. Keeping your cat in ideal body condition is important. Exercise will help control your cat's weight and prevention is always better than cure.
To keep up activity levels, invest in some cat exercise toys, an indoor climbing frame or a scratching post. Introduce regular play sessions and remember that anything that moves will appeal to cats, as it gives them a chance to polish their hunting skills.
A cat's home and social environment are also important in encouraging activity. Does your home contain many structures to climb or jump onto? Do you put away your cat's toys after play sessions, so their reappearance is always irresistible? If your home is split-level, try placing your cat's food bowl on a different floor from the sleeping area to encourage as much stair climbing as possible. These are all simple things you can do to keep your cat healthy, happy and a purrfect pet for years to come!