Cat’s Play: The Hunter Within

Did you know that as a cat owner you have a hunter in your home? The distant ancestors of our feline friends had to hunt for their food. Even after hundreds of years of domestication, the most well-fed cat is hard-wired with this prey instinct. The prey sequence is stimulating to your cat, and one to keep in mind as you play with him.

The prey sequence consists of four phases. First, a cat stares at her prey and then slowly moves into the best position to stalk it. Next, the cat stalks her prey. Just before she spring into action, she will wiggle her behind to signal an impending attack. Third, the cat pounces and grabs her prey. At this point, the cat might even purposely release her prey, so that she can repeat the sequence. Finally, the cat rolls onto her side and kicks against her prey with her back legs while biting her prey. Alternatively, the cat might refuse to relinquish her prey and instead carry it off.

Even though domesticated cats don’t need to hunt for their food, they retain the instinct to do so, and cats will benefit by replicating the prey sequence when they play. There are different types of toys that can elicit different components of the prey sequence. For that reason, it’s important to provide your cat with a variety of toys. There are four main categories of toys, each of which focuses on different parts of the prey sequence.

Self-Play: The cheapest options are plastic rings from milk containers, soda bottle caps, and empty toilet paper rolls. Other low-cost options are plush mice, crinkle balls, and ping pong balls. You can increase your cat’s fun with self-play toys by placing them in an empty box or hiding them around the house. Unless your cat is super energetic, self-play toys primarily meet only the pounce and grab phase of the prey sequence.

Battery-operated: These toys are powered to move on their own, which can simulate a more realistic prey-object. Cats can watch, stalk, and pounce on battery-operated toys. The drawbacks are that these toys are more expensive and the batteries will run out quickly if left on all the time.

Puzzle Toys/Food Puzzles: The cheapest options are a puzzle toy created from a cardboard box or a food puzzle designed using a muffin pan. Alternatively, you can buy a puzzle toy created with wood or plastic. Puzzles force cats to use their brains and bodies in ways that mimic predatory behavior. For instance, using their paws to tease a toy or kibble out of a hole is similar to their manipulating a mouse to prevent injury.

Interactive: The most popular example of an interactive toy is the wand toy. If you use a wand toy strategically, you can replicate the entire prey sequence. One strategy to try is to keep the lure on the ground and relatively still for a while, then make the lure twitch or skitter before having it dart or leap to a hiding place. This will encourage your cat to express her predatory behavior. Your cat might even perform the death kick or kill bite on the toy.

Besides providing your cat with a variety of toys, here are some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Encourage your cat’s natural prey instinct by providing toys in the shape of birds, mice, snakes, and insects.
  • Allow your cat at times to play on his own, so he doesn’t become reliant on you to stimulate his prey drive.
  • When a play session is about to end, let your cat catch the toy and switch it with food to replicate the hunt-then-eat pattern from the wild.
  • Rotate toys each week so playtime doesn’t become mundane.
  • Use catnip spray to renew toys!

Cats follow a set routine: wake, hunt, eat, groom, and sleep. By incorporating two or three 10-15 minutes sessions of play per day that mimic their prey sequence, we can help replicate their daily rhythm. In doing so, we’ll help our feline friends live satisfying and rewarding lives.

Written for The Cat House. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2019.

The Cat House is a no-kill shelter located at 3633 “O” St Lincoln, NE 68510. Open hours are Tuesday and Thursday 6 pm – 8 pm; Sunday 1:30 pm – 4 pm. 

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