An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Interactive Play - Suggestions for Jade & Spook

Dear Jade,

Following on my previous advice, I want to tell you about the marvels of interactive play. Interactive play requires human interaction. It is an excellent way to disperse excess energy, give you physical challenge AND build a stronger bond with the humans in your world.

Interactive means that you play with your purrson. Your purrson controls an interactive toy (more about that later) but in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on. So now to the details.

Toys of Choice

String Games - These are especially good for the shy cat who may be intimidated by play or the elderly or arthritic cat who can't leap or run much.

The worm - that is, any long, thin thing that can be pulled along the ground. I have several models. Check out this thick, long shoelace (the kind that is for hiking boots) with the aiglets cut off and the ends made into knots. Mine is about 60" long (long enough for Herself to keep the end far enough away from me that I won't pounce on her by mistake).

The fishing pole - basically a long string attached to a pole (to keep the human our of harm's way while you play. Herself made mine using a 30" strand of fleece (from the remnant section of a fabric store) attached to a 30" piece of fake bamboo (sold in the garden section of our local hardware store) with some electrical tape (sometimes, she has used duct tape instead).
The fat fleece which is a fatter, store-bought version of my home-made fishing pole toy and has detachable feathers at the end, to add interest. Pole is kitten-sized (17") but the length of the fleece (40" + 7" feathers) makes up for it. While it is similar to many such toys, it's strong point is that it is well-made and will not easily come apart (except for the feather bit - but even without the feathers I find it quite entertaining). I bought this from the local pet supply store using my catnip allowance.

To use these toys, have your purrson drag them along the floor. You can watch and then pounce. But it gets more interesting if your purrson drags it behind her as she walks through your home. I like when it goes around the corner into another room, or behind a piece of furniture. And it is very entertaining when it starts to crawl up on the sofa and over the cushions.

Bug Games - These are for those of us who prefurr to hunt small bugs, rather than long thin things.

Cat Dancer While there is nothing like a fresh grasshopper to give you some get up and go, Herself prefurrs to use the Cat Dancer (available from pet supply stores for around $4.00 Canadian). It is very simple: a coiled wire with some cardboard bits on the end. In fact it looks so simple that many people are not impressed by it in the package. But in action, it is another matter.

Herself holds the wire and it goes erratically in the air. Sometimes she gets the bug to go into an open paper bag (or my brand new cat tent) so I can hunt for it there. Sometimes the bug goes between layers of tissue paper on the floor and rustles about to attract my interest.

Recently I acquired a dragonfly by Nekochan (click on this for a video demonstration) and it has become a favourite, especially in winter.

Bird Games - Ah, the flash of feathers! While I had tried several feather toys on poles, my very favourite is called Da Bird.
It has been rated as one of the best cat toys ever, for many years. Herself couldn't understand what all the fuss is about because it looks so much like every other fishing pole toy. But the proof is in the action! It is a long pole ( 3' to keep the human from getting hurt when I pounce), a three-foot piece of string on which the toy dangles, and a clump of feathers that resemble the size and profile of the real thing; those feathers are attached in such a way that they whir through the air, just like a real bird!

Just watch the cat below for a real demonstration.

Herself makes it go through the room in the air and I watch it intently. When she lets it land that really gets me interested. From time to time, she lets the feathers rest on the sofa or the ground. She is patient enough to let them rest for some time, and then I get into my special crouch position and wait for the right moment before I rush up to it and pounce. Once I've released my prey, she sends it up in the air for another round. I am grateful that the manufacturers of this particular toy sell replacement feathers, because I'm sure mine will get a good workout.

Laser Pointer - I used to love a good workout with a laser pointer which is every humans' dream because it requires so little work on their part. They just sit, turn it on and point. The only thing they have to make sure is NOT TO POINT IT IN YOUR EYES because the light is intense and could cause blindness.

Herself went all out and bought one from a stationery and office supply store (about $20!) because she wanted one that would take inexpensive replacement batteries. But I know you can also get them from a dollar store (sometimes for $1.00 and sometimes for $2.00 Canadian); just know that when the batteries wear out, you'll need to get a new pointer because the replacement batteries will cost more than the toy itself.

I have particularly enjoyed watching and then chasing the red point up and down the stairs. And I have friends who literally can climb the walls after it!

But beware, many of us get bored with this - because we can NEVER catch it! And that's how I feel about it now.

The Wand - I love my three-foot feather wand. In fact I loved it to death, so Herself had to go out and purchase several more. (Here I am with the new one on the left and the old one on the right.) A wand costs about $5.00.

Every night before my folks get into bed, we have a special game. I hop on the bed and Herself messes up the duvet and spreads the pillows around to make an interesting hunting ground. Then the wand comes out.

It goes in the air, hits the bed and flops about. It hides under the folds of the duvet. No matter where it is, I watch carefully and pounce. From time to time the feathers fly off. After a while, either I start to lose interest or the toy starts to move more and more slowly, like I've actually maimed it.

And after a final pounce, it's dead. And then Herself puts it away for the night. I'm then ready for a snack.

The Rules of the Game

People make the mistake of thinking that games are purely for entertainment. They don't realize that they are a necessary part of our daily predatory cycle without which we can become quite anxious and uptight. We are hunters; so we need to stalk, chase, pounce and kill several times a day. That is why I recommend two, 15-minute interactive play sessions. Your purrson controls the toy in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on.

Here are the details your purrson needs to know, in order to follow the rules of the game.

Prey never come out when you are in the open. You need to be at least somewhat hidden from them (or they from you). Unfortunately many people think you should play in the middle of the room where there is no cover. Now how many hunters go out in the open rather than hiding under a bush or behind a tree?

No I'm not suggesting that your purrson bring in some dirt and a ten-foot tree to add some realism. However a cardboard box with cutouts can serve as an excellent blind (think duck hunter here). A cushion on the floor can be a barrier (or something behind which prey can hide). A tablecloth or low bench can serve to partially hide you while in hunting pose.

Prey never just walk right up to you. They may wander across your line of vision. They will go away from you. But no prey invites himself to be your dinner.

A common mistake most people make with interactive play is to just dangle the toy in front of you, so you stand on your haunches and box. This is a defensive move and does NOT simulate hunting. It entertains the human but has zippo value to you.

No prey would behave so stupidly; so no wonder you are NOT amused.

Prey follow a path of some sort, either on the ground (in and around things too) or in the air. And from time to time they stop and rest. For example while birds fly a lot, they also walk on the ground (looking for worms and bugs) and this is the more likely time when they are caught by hunting cats. And after prey has been caught, it will try to get away. Over time of course, it will get more and more tired and become more and more still. Still prey is dead prey - of not much interest.

Some people make another common mistake: To make the toy go off in a dozen different directions at top speed so that you exhaust yourself chasing it and NEVER catch it! Again, this may be human entertainment but only serves to frustrate you. So you need to insist that they mimic proper prey behaviour.

Prey eventually get caught and die. The game should not continue at a high speed on and on or your 15 minutes will be up and you'll be wound up tighter than a drum!

To help you wind down, the prey needs to get exhausted during the last few minutes of the game, getting slower and slower, and finally be dispatched for the very last time.

Then follow up with a snack. After all, in the wild you would eat your prey after it has been killed.

Some things humans should NEVER do.

Shine a laser pointer in your eyes (it can blind you).

Use their hands (even gloved! even those gloves with toys dangling from the fingers!) instead of a toy. This is dangerous to them because your will pounce, swat, claw and bite them by accident. And it is dangerous for you, because they will think you are vicious when you decide to bite their hand when they put it under the sheets at night, thinking it's another game.

Leave these toys out when the human has gone. Cats have been known to strangle themselves or bite and swallow the strings, when unsupervised. Such toys should be kept in a drawer or closet when not in use. Besides they are more interesting if saved for special occasions.

Do let me know how this works for Spook and yourself. And need I say, given Spook's dominance you would be better off having individual play sessions. Don't forget to close the door so he doesn't barge in and take over!

Let the games begin!