Holiday cat

How I learned to properly play with my cats



Play with your kitty.  Sounds simple enough, right? And in a way, it is. The theory is, in any case – wave a stick about, with a toy dangling from it and the cat pounces it. Rinse and repeat. 

Well…I found that there is just a little bit more to it than that. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that – to me at least – that is boring as hell. Why on earth would you wanna do that? And you know what? When I wasn’t into it, my cats soon lost all interest as well. There went a bonding and de-stressing tool out the window.

And so, I tried again. Jackson Galaxy teaches people often on his show how to play with their cat because it is vital to the therapy he is prescribing. And it shows just how difficult this easy-looking stuff can be for us. 

However, once I understood the factors that were involved, I was a lot more intrigued and I got into the game.

Kitten Level

There is nothing cuter and more easily entertained than a kitten. Everything is new, fun and exciting. And so, it’s very much easy to entertain a kitten by waving a stick with a big colourful toy in their face. They’ll go for it every time. And they are so frigging adorable in the process, it entertains us just as much. This also requires very little skill level –  for both parties involved, making it easy and fun to engage in.

Then those fuzzy bundles grow up and their skills evolve. And so should ours.

Hunting Preferences


If given the chance, and if taught properly by her own mother, a mother will pass on her preference of prey to her kittens. Some will hunt rabbits every time. Others prefer birds. Even when mom wasn’t able to do so, your cat may develop an aptitude and preference for a particular toy. Figuring which type of hunter your kitty is can therefore contribute a lot to your interactive play. 

Birds move differently from mice and rabbits. Mimicking the movements of their favourite prey is the key to holding their attention, raising the stakes of the game and honestly, to get your own buy-in. It certainly requires more mental capacity and imagination than just waving a bloody stick in someone’s face, after all. 

Birds fly about, and land occasionally. To really capture your cat’s attention, make it a predicable pattern of swooshing through the air (preferably using a feather toy) and landing at certain intervals. Then, watch your kitty stalk and ambush the prey – this is best done in a place where your cat can actually use the furniture to hide behind and jump onto for the ambush. 

 For ground prey, running fast, then hiding and quivering behind furniture, inside shoes and underneath carpets is bound to drive your kitty batty. Especially if you use a toy that makes some kind of noise – clicking, rustling, squeaking, you name it.

Timid vs Assertive

Then, your cat’s personality level comes into play. It is my experience that most commercial wand toys have a neon-coloured, obnoxiously big toy attached to them. Now, as stated above, kittens often love this. And these toys are amazing for cats that are near-sighted or blind. 

But more often than not – they scare cats. They intimidate them. Remember, cats are prey as well as predators, so they have to be careful. Couple that with a guardian who waves these toys in their faces and they run for the hills – and who can blame them?

Now, some cats go nuts for these toys. They’re usually the very outgoing and confident cats that are up for trying anything. On the other side you’ll find cats like my feral one, Faith, who are terrified of people and anything big or unpredictable. A laser toy allows me to play with her from across the room, with her going mental over the small tiny light which is the perfect size for where she is at right now.

Knowing your kitty will help you greatly in deciding the right toy for them. In my experience, you’re generally safe with something the size of a small toy mouse for ground prey lovers.  Most cats feel pretty confident taking that on and cannot resist something like that. Meanwhile, bird hunters tend to very much enjoy the feel of real feathers and the swooshing it makes when it flies through the air. 

Skilled vs…Not 

Cats are taught how to hunt. While they have an innate drive to go after prey, they don’t necessarily know what to…do with it, if they haven’t been taught properly. 

For instance, Arwen paws at prey but doesn’t use her nails – though she is getting better at this. She very much still plays like a kitten because she wasn’t taught by mom – she was taken away from her at 4 weeks. Falcor knows how to hunt prey, but then doesn’t now what to do with it and ends up letting it go.  Princess knew how to catch it but not how to hold on to it. Luna, in her day, knew how to hunt, catch and hold the prey but was then at a loss as to what to do next. Only Trinity knew how to administer the killing blow and then eat the prey. 

Each of them – safe for Trinity –  demonstrates a gap of knowledge in their hunting skills. And this affects playtime with them. Much like you would with a child, I try to build them from the ground up: 

I play with Arwen the way I would with a kitten. Strings and mice are her favourite and she doesn’t mind having the toy be right in front of her. Her damaged eye makes it harder for her to see things further away.  She is also the only one who is interested in automated toys that repeat the same pattern over and over. She can run up and down the same corridor after a toy for minutes on end. 

Meanwhile, Falcor loves birds that swoosh through the air above him and lands just inches away from him and holds still, safe from a quiver. It’s even better when it actually hides behind a corner. For him – and Trinity –  I often build an obstacle course where the prey can hide in and around things. 

Trinity is at the highest level. She loves swooshing birds overhead and she loves it at top difficulty. That means prey that hops in and around things, swooshes further away from her and is fast and  *hard* to catch. 

The more you let them catch the toy, the higher you boost their confidence and the more motivated they will be to practice. And this also spills into the rest of their lives – meaning that it boosts their confidence and happiness in general. 

So for Arwen, I let her catch it plenty. Falcor, I do about half and half for, so that I can keep him interested enough. And with Trinity, if I let her catch it…I don’t get the toy back because she’s got a death grip on it. So, I only let her catch it near the end of the game, and then switch to the ‘wounded prey’ where I gently tug at the cord for a bit as she winds down.  She is also the hardest to engage at first, but when she goes into hunter mode…she is also the scariest and hardest to avoid capture with. Her level of lethal intensity is downright terrifying.

Each kitty is of course different and you’ll have to feel yours out, which is part of the fun. Before you know it, you’ll be beaming with pride at their growth and accomplishments, as you’re struggling to keep up!