Interactive Play

Can you define interactive play?

Interactive playtime serves many functions. It may seem like a simple game, but it's actually a powerful behavior modification tool. It can build confidence, ease tension, help erase boredom, help a cat out of depression, aid in weight loss, help during new cat/people introductions, help with litter box problems (yes, that's true!), and it's a big aid when introducing another cat into the home. The reason is that it changes the cat's mindset. When you bring out an interactive toy, you stimulate the cat's prey drive. He stops thinking about whatever was worrying him and shifts his focus to the "prey." He starts developing positive associations with the playtime, and that'll go a long way in helping with litter box problems, multiple-cat tension, etc. This form of distraction and redirection is one of the most effective ways to change unwanted behavior. It's also the best way to help gain the trust of a fearful cat or one who hasn't gotten to know you yet. He'll begin associating you with positive experiences while being able to stay within his comfort zone.

An interactive play session involves the use of a fishing pole type toy. There are many different kinds on the market. There are several benefits to using this type of toy. First, it puts a distance between your hand and your cat's teeth. This makes for a safer play session. If you have a cat who bites, or if you've allowed your cat to bite your hands in past play sessions, using an interactive toy teaches him that only toys are to be bitten and never human flesh. The fishing pole toy also allows you to move the toy like prey. Cats don't enjoy the same type of playtime as dogs, so in order for a session to be completely enjoyable and beneficial, you need to stick with what is natural to a cat. When a cat hunts in the wild, he stalks his prey. He spends a lot of time hiding behind a rock, a bush or a tree as he watches his prey. He sneaks up to a safe "ambush distance" and then pounces on his victim. Unlike a dog, a cat doesn't chase his prey to exhaustion. His lungs are built for sprints and not long distance running. So when you do your play sessions, don't have your cat running long marathons throughout the house. That's not fun for the cat. The point of interactive play sessions is for it to be enjoyable -- not frustrating.

A common mistake many people make when engaging in interactive play sessions is that they keep the toy in motion all of the time. Remember, you should be trying to simulate an actual hunt. In the wild, a mouse or bird wouldn't be moving all of the time. The mouse might hide behind something or the bird would land in order to nibble some seed. It's during those times that the cat can do his planning and inch closer. Even though a hunt is a very physical thing, for a cat, it's also a mental exercise. He has to use his skills to be as silent and quick as possible. He has to judge the ambush distance and develop excellent timing and aim. That takes a lot of mental skill. That's where interactive playtime can create confidence. Let your cat have plenty of captures. Let the toy hide behind the chair leg so your cat can sneak up and pounce. Don't dangle the toy in front of your cat's face and don't make the game too hard. No prey in its right mind would deliberately hang out right in front of the enemy. And no cat in his right mind would endlessly chase a bird that never lands. Remember: Let your cat have plenty of captures. This is supposed to be fun for him!

Play sessions should last about 15 minutes each. Two sessions a day would be terrific. If your cat keeps you awake at night, then do a session right before bed. An important part of the game is the "wind down." At the end of the game, wind the action down, almost like a cool-down after an exercise. The reason is to simulate dying prey. This will allow the cat to relax as he realizes he has captured his prey. If you don't slow down the action, the cat will still be revved up at the end of the game. If you simulate dying prey at the end, the cat will feel very satisfied. When it's over, you can even give your kitty a tiny treat. In the wild, the natural order is hunt, feast, groom, and sleep. The cat captures his prey, devours it, then he cleans all traces of prey from himself, and off he goes to sleep.

Suggestions for interactive toys: There are so many toys out there. When you go to the pet supply store, try to look at the toy and imagine what type of prey it could be. Some great toys include Da Bird and the Cat Dancer. Da Bird (yes, it really is "Da") has feathers on a swivel device so it looks and sounds like a bird in flight as you move the wand through the air. The Cat Dancer is a wire toy that can be moved to simulate a cricket jumping in the grass or a fly buzzing around. These two toys are all-time cat favorites! There are also many more out there. I like to vary the toys so my cats can enjoy hunting a "mouse" one day and a "bird" the next, or maybe a "snake" and a "grasshopper." Be creative.

When you've finished your play session, be sure and put the toys away. This will keep the play sessions as special time that you share with your cat and ensure he doesn't chew on any stringed parts.

If you have more than one cat, try to do some individual play sessions so the cats don't have to worry about another kitty barging in on the fun. You can also do group sessions, but you should either have another family member help out or hold a toy in each hand. This way, the cats don't have to compete. It'll seem awkward at first, but you'll get the hang of it. Group sessions help cats learn to associate each other with positive things and not feel competitive.

For specific step-by-step instructions on interactive play sessions, refer to my book Think Like a Cat.

Best,
Pam Johnson-Bennett

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