In addition to the signals of intent to play being used during established play sessions, other behaviours seen during play include:
- Pawing - one cat patting another individual with the forepaw, claws retracted.
- Face-off - simultaneous pawing at each others faces while engaged in visual contact. Cats may sit on hind quarters with both front limbs off the floor (most common in kittens and juveniles)
- Chasing – one cat in fast pursuit of another
- Jostling - two cats engaged physically with each other, often raking the other with the hind legs and pulling the opponent towards its body with its forepaws
Play to conflict?
Recognising when a cat does not want to play is equally important to ensure it is not being harassed or bullied which can lead to fear of the initiating cat or, in some
cases, generalised anxiety. Even when two cats are playing amicably, increasing arousal levels and/or change in play type (eg, from batting and pawing to a chase) can lead to one cat (or both) no longer feeling comfortable in the interaction. Thus appropriate management is required to ensure the general positive relationship between the cats is maintained. Intervention may be required which may involve redirecting the play drives of one of the cats onto something else more appropriate at that particular time.
Common signs of conflict and/or distress which are often witnessed as a signal conveying ‘I don’t want to play’ or ‘I no longer want to play’ include:
- Lip licking – tongue flicks over nose briefly in absence of food
- Exaggerated swallow
- Tail swish – rapid swishing from side to side
- Vocalisations including yeowl, hiss and spit.
- Back twitch – skin on back may twitch abruptly
- Cuff – like a pat but with claws extended (may start as a paw but if play
solicitation continues, may turn into a cuff)
- Grooming – very short interval of grooming usually on shoulder area
With well matched cats, play interactions can end successfully and amicably and no human intervention is needed. Usually during such interactions, arousal levels do
not escalate excessively and the play usually does not involve high levels of chasing (unless the participants are kittens or juveniles). It is unknown if cats have calming
signals or appeasement signals and greater research is needed in this area. However, it has been witnessed that cats may put some physical distance between one another (at least one cat length) and slow blinking is often observed as well as a soft tail curl.
Promotion of play ...
Identifying when the cat is receptive to play
Cats vary in their motivation to play but all cats, if provided with the right opportunity, will play and benefit from the opportunity to do so. Understanding the specific likes and dislikes of the individual cat will enable owners to provide the best possible opportunities for play.
The cat’s receptivity to play will depend on the routines and natural activity rhythms of the individual. Some clues to ideal ‘playtime’ include:
- Spontaneous play with objects
- Sudden staccato movements
- Dilated pupils, ears flattened laterally
- Frozen postures, crouched legs
- ‘Mad half hour’
Note that laterally flattened ears are also associated with agonistic interaction yet can be seen without the presence of another cat in states of high arousal. If another cat is present the behaviour must be distinguished carefully from agonistic interaction.
Assessing the cat’s play drive can enable owners to tailor play to suit the cat’s needs and motivation. For example,
High play drive
- Plays frequently spontaneously with objects
- Receptive at any time of day
- Less discriminate about objects chosen for play
- Rarely tires (owner gives up first)
- Destructive, often tearing or consuming toys
- Responds to conditioned stimulus, eg, sound of the drawer opening that contains toys
Low play drive
- Does not play spontaneously with objects
- Receptive only at specific times of day and in specific circumstances
- Discriminate about toys chosen for play
- Tires quickly and needs a great deal of persuasion to start playing
Games to play
- Each cat will have specific likes and dislikes regarding toys and playtime and these will be based on some or all of the following:
- Movement eg, random, quick, stop/start
- Owner interaction
- Time of day
- Presence of other cats
Domestic cats (and many wild cats) respond to the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria) containing the chemical trans-nepetalactone, closely related to a substance secreted by a queen (female cat) in her urine. Those affected will rub their faces on it, drool and roll. The substance will often promote excitation, play or relaxation.
Only 50 to 70% of the cat population exhibit the response but in sensitive individuals it can be a useful play stimulant.
Establishing what stimulates the individual is based on trial and error, although there are some commercially available toys that have majority appeal, such as.
- YEOWWW!! Catnip Banana
- Da Bird fishing rod toy with feather attachment
- Cat Dancer
- Small real fur mice (food source by-product)
Types of play
- Self play (solitary)
- Self play (object)
- • Interactive play (intra-specific social)
- Interactive play (inter-specific social [humans])
- Fetch games
- Wand toys
- Laser pointer
- Chase games
- Explore, search, forage play
- Cardboard boxes
- Cat activity centres
- Cupboards, wardrobes
The cat is also a prey species so care should be taken with ‘hide and seek’ and ‘chase’ games: at some point the game may become a ‘life threatening situation’.
Play explores all parts of the predatory sequence: search, stalk, chase, pounce, catch and manipulate. Further research is required to establish whether or not the order and completeness of the sequence is important. It can be observed however that some games/toys can cause frustration if the pounce/catch parts of the sequence are absent, eg, laser pointers, so it is advisable, until proven otherwise, to follow the sequence and mimic the natural circumstances as closely as possible, for example play in short bursts of activity before feeding times and end the game on a positive note when the cat catches the toy.
Rules of the game
It may be possible to identify, particularly with high play drive cats, a particularly powerful toy that promotes an instant response every time. This toy should be used
randomly to maintain its power. Cats are naturally neophilic (excited by novelty) so toys left out will soon lose their appeal. All toys should therefore be rotated randomly and kept in a sealed bag when not in use.
Games should be ended on a positive note before the cat has become bored; a strong signal, particularly for the enthusiastic player, that the game has stopped is essential.
Any toys that are interactive and require the owner’s involvement should not be left out.
Playtime is more complicated in multi-cat households where one cat may be more motivated to play than others or where any tension is present within the group. If a cat is suffering from stress due to social conflict then play, deemed a leisure activity, will be avoided due to the need for heightened vigilance. It is therefore essential to monitor each individual in a multi-cat group and consider factoring in some time in the day to play individually in isolation.
Encouraging intra-specific social play
Cats are more likely to indulge in intra-specific social play if the environment is conducive to doing so safely. If observed, cats enjoy the opportunity to play in
environments where there are obstacles and varying levels to give camouflage, hiding opportunities and the chance to access high places for ‘timeout’. It appears that the
opportunity to break the stare in social play fighting diffuses tension and avoids the arousal from escalating to agonistic levels, inappropriate for play.
Areas indoors that are designated for play therefore should contain some or all of the following to get the maximum benefits:
- Cardboard boxes with entry/exit holes
- Furniture at various heights
- Cat activity centres
All objects should be positioned in such a way that each cat can move around them and approach from any angle.
It may be necessary, on occasion, to intervene in intraspecific social play that has escalated and risks injury to either party.
It is advisable not to physically intervene using arms or legs as, in a heightened state of arousal, the cats will not distinguish between the owner and each other and injury
can be inevitable. If the escalation has not progressed to physical fighting but has reached the stage of direct staring, then an opportunity to break the stare, and therefore the view of each other, can be sufficient to diffuse the situation.
A suitable intervention would be to use distraction with a fishing rod toy, laser pointer (leading the cat towards a favourite toy), kick toy (one large enough to be held in the
forelegs and kicked with the hindlegs) to gain the cat’s attention by triggering the peripheral vision with rapid movements.
If the encounter has escalated beyond this point then physical contact can be interrupted using a wooden board made for the purpose (a rectangular or square sheet of lightweight plywood attached to a wooden handle) placed between the cats to enable the owner to intervene from a safe distance.
A blanket can be thrown over the cats as an alternative strategy if such encounters are not frequent and therefore do not merit the construction of a specific tool. If the problem persists it may be necessary to seek advice from a veterinary surgeon who may refer to an animal behaviourist to assess the situation and recommend action for long-term management.
Although further research is required to fully understand the role and significance of play it is clear that it fulfils a welfare-enhancing function for all cats, irrespective of their age. It is important to recognise and promote positive play behaviour, both intra-specific and inter-specific, that meets the needs of the individual.
- Beaver B V (1992). Feline Behavior: A guide for veterinarians.
W B Saunders Company, London.
- Bekoff M & Byers J A (1998) Animal Play: Evolutionary, comparative and ecological perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
- Moelk M (1979) The development of friendly approach behavior in the cat: a study of mother-kitten relations and the cognitive development of the kitten from birth to eight weeks.
Advances in the Study of Behavior, 10, 163-224.