There are a few key things every cat owner should know when it comes to playing with their furry feline. Allow me to list the essentials:
1. Cats want to hunt, not be hunted
I suppose that could be said for all of us (at least the latter part), but it is especially true for cats. Cats instinctively want to stalk and chase their "prey", be it a string, a toy, or some hapless baby chipmunk in the backyard. One of the classic mistakes cat owners make when playing with their pets is consistently moving the play object towards the cat rather than away from it. If a cat feels threatened or intimidated in any way, it will check out rather than engage. While it is understandable how an owner might want to move the play object toward the cat (come on lil guy, play!), this will typically only serve to reverse the cat's natural instincts of wanting to be on the offense rather than the defense. So, before beginning playtime, remember that it's your job to emulate the prey and your cat's job to be the hunter.
2. Engage your cat's senses
While the standard string is good, a string with something sparkly attached to the end of it and something that makes it create noise is even better. The more you can engage your cat's senses during playtime, the more active your cat will be.
3.Make the cat feel like the play toy is always on the verge of getting away
Dropping the string down in the middle of the floor in plain site of your cat may be novel at first, but your cat will quickly tire of having it's prey so easily available. In general, try not to show the whole object at once. Rather, give your cat fleeting glimpses of it's prey as it slowly moves out of sight. For example, with a string, your cat is generally going to be more intrigued by the last 10 % of the string that's slowly escaping behind the chair than the 90 % it's already seen.
4. Most of the time, the play toy SHOULD get away
You may need to practice this one in order to get good at it, especially if your cat happens to be an expert hunter. But in general, try not to let your cat "win" all the time. Like a truly competitive athlete, cats would rather lose giving it their best than win having an opponent go easy on them. The less your cat can get the play toy, the more your cat will want the play toy.
5. Leverage your cat's curiosity
Cats are instinctively curious. "No duh," you're thinking (yes, I threw out a 90's catchphrase). However, very few cat owners seem to leverage this knowledge productively during playtime. Rather than always letting your cat see the particular object it's hunting, regularly hide it behind something while simultaneously making it create noise. If your cat is like most cats, it will not be able to resist and will soon come pouncing into whichever particular hiding place you've chosen. Mix it up - your cat will thank you and you'll have more fun too.
6. Emulate captured prey
If you've ever seen a cat that's captured real prey, you know that the cat isn't usually interested in killing it off right away. Rather, it wants to toy with it for awhile. And usually, the captured prey will "play" right along by pretending to be dead and then making a break for it once the cat lets go (although I suppose it's not really "playing" when you've got cat fangs sunk into your flesh leading to a slow and miserable death). Your job is to be like that poor little mouse. Play dead, make a break for it, let the cat catch it (if it can), repeat.
7. Eliminate distractions
If there are a lot of new people in the house or loud sounds in the background, your cat will likely be too distracted or skittish to hunt at it's optimal level. Create a safe environment for your cat to play in and it will more likely be fully engaged.
8. Introduce new play toys regularly
Even the best play toys can get boring to your cat after awhile. If you can, mix it up everyone once in awhile. You don't have to spend a ton of time or money to create great play toys for your cat. Just be creative. Here's a recent example of how I did this with a string.
1. Normal string. Cat loved it at first...gradually became less intrigued by it.
2. Normal string with cellophane taped around the end of it. This created the element of sound in the chase and suddenly the cat could not only see the prey but hear it as well. Instant attention. But again, over time it became less intriguing.
3. Normal string with cellophane and a wild feather attached to the end of it. This introduced three new elements: the feather, the smell of the feather (new sense engaged), and the flight of the feather. Suddenly the string that used to be earthbound was now soaring through the air. Our cat couldn't resist...for awhile.
4. Normal string with a round, bunched up Walmart bag taped to the end of it. Oh boy. Watch out. This is the new "hot" toy for our cat. She will regularly start panting after just five minutes of play because she is going after it nonstop. Adding something on the end that she can sink her teeth into has been the killer add-on. Who's knows what the next evolution will be...
So, there you have it. Some basic tips on how to play with your cat. As you can see, most of it involves playing on your cat's terms rather than your own. Your cat is a cat after all, not a dog, and perhaps that's one of the most important things to keep in mind during playtime. Happy playing!