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.

Interactive Play Therapy

I write about play incessantly, particularly the type that involves you and your purrson. It seems that almost every cat who writes me needs play therapy of this sort. And so I present the Play Therapy page.

This page has the following sections:
Why Play is Essential in Our Daily Lives (and what happens when we don't get enough).
Interactive Play with a Purrson (what it is and how often you should indulge).
The Rules of the Game (to optimize the workout and keep our interest).
Things Humans Should Never Do (safety, safety and more safety).
Interactive Toys (what kinds of toys are available and how they work).

Why Play is ESSENTIAL in Our Daily Lives

Play is simply the term we use when we are simulating hunting. We are not going after live mice or birds but rather going through the motions of the hunt. It is enjoyable and tension-relieving.

All cats have a hunting, or predatory, cycle. Not so long ago, we were all wild cats so we had to hunt or we would starve. In the wild you need to hunt several times a day because you never know when and if you will be successful. So you take every opportunity you can get (unless your tummy is very full).

That urge has not left us. We are still born hunters and even though our food comes in a dish, we still need to hunt.

The hunting cycle consists of the following:
Finding the prey by stalking.
Staring at the prey intently to get a good fix on position and potential movement.
Pouncing on the prey and bringing it down (with possible continued cycles of staring, pouncing, biting and scratching).

The cycle finishes with
Chomping on the prey.
Grooming off the smears from your feast; and
Having a nap because you are sated and exhausted.

Even when we don't hunt wild prey, the predatory cycle still manifests. You know it is in operation because your arousal level rises (felt as a vague anxiety) which gets you interested in the hunt. When that happens, you need to hunt or to go through something that resembles the hunt, in order to lower that arousal level.

That's why some of us race up and down corridors (usually at dawn and/or dusk - the times when wild cats hunt). Others of us may 'pick on' pets in the household - doing an invitational pounce and nip to get them to play. And others resort to stalking humans.

IF you don't get a hunting workout and IF that happens repeatedly, your arousal level will continue to rise to the point where you cannot get it back under control, and you will go off half-cocked at the least little thing. You may be on alert 24/7.

Cats who are stressed are also 'on alert' and that means that their arousal levels are high and they need to be brought down. In short: you need to burn off your energy.

When you are a kitten, you resorted to play at the drop of the hat. And solitary play things, known as toys, will keep you occupied for long periods of time. This changes as you grow up.

When you grow older, you depend less on solitary play and more on the interactive variety. Interactive play means that you need someone else to play with: another cat (whose energy level matches yours), another household pet, or a purrson. Interactive play tends to be more interesting and as such, can by more challenging.

Interactive Play with a Purrson

What It Is: Many of us find interactive play (that is, sharing a toy with a purrson) an excellent way to rid ourselves of pent up energy and a good vehicle for building a bond. This can be useful if you are the only cat in the household (and thus need a non-feline play buddy) or if your energy level differs from other cats in your home (and thus they are less willing to play with you).

How Often: I recommend two interactive play sessions a day - or more. Duration is up to you based on time available. It should be sufficient to tire you out (without panting); 15-minutes can be enough but some cats need a lot more.

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. If your interactive partner is a purrson, s/he must operate a suitable interactive toy  in a manner that simulates prey behaviour.

I am indebted to the noted cat behaviourist, Pam Johnson-Bennett, whose books so thoroughly outline interactive play; Think Like A Cat is one of my favourites.

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

1. 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. And unfortunately many cat videos perpetuate this myth. 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.

2. 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 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.

3. 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.

4. 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! You will also start to pant and that is NOT good for you. To help you wind down, the prey needs to simulate exhaustion during the last few minutes of the game, getting slower and slower so it can finally be dispatched for the very last time. That way you can wind down and be ready to relax.

5. Snack once the game is over. Each session should be followed by something to eat - a few treats or a small snack. In this way, it is like eating your kill. Then you'll groom and be ready for a nap - just like in the wild. It's just like the hunting cycle I described at the very beginning of this entry.

Things Humans Should NEVER Do

1. Do NOT play so intensely or excessively that you are panting. If you start to pant, slow the session down. Don't stop it immediately because that is hard on your heart. Just slow it down, slower and slower until you catch your breath. Then make sure your sessions are less intense. The rule is: Don't pant! It's not good for you. 

2. Do NOT let your purrson shine a laser pointer in your eyes: It can blind you.

3. Do NOT let purrsons use their hands in play instead of a toy (even gloved! even those gloves with toys dangling from the fingers!). 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.

4. Do NOT leave toys with strings, wire or tinsel-like metal (which are major components of interactive toys) out when there is no purrson to supervise you. 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.

Interactive Toys

String-Based Toys: There are a variety of interactive toys available that are based on a common principle: a long, thin piece of material (string, fleece, wire) to which is usually attached some thing of interest (a mouse, feathers, etc.). I will show you a number of examples.

Basic String Toy: The Worm
The worm is any long, thin thing that can be pulled along the ground. I have several models. Pictured here is a thick, long shoelace (the fatter kind that is for hiking boots) with the aiglets - the end bits with the plastic on them - cut off so I don't swallow plastic and the ends made into knots so the shoelace doesn't fray. Mine is about 150 cm (60" long) - long enough for Herself to keep the end far enough away from me that I won't pounce on her by mistake. 

Fishing-pole Type Toy
The fishing pole refurrs to any type of long string attached to a pole (to keep the human our of harm's way while you play). Herself made mine using a 75 cm (30") strand of fleece from the remnant section of a fabric store,  attached to a 75 cm (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). You can buy versions of this toy at your local pet supply store. Just look for something that has the potential to endure some rigourous play.

Fat Fleece Fishing-pole Type Toy
The fat fleece such as this teaser is a fatter, store-bought version of my home-made fishing pole toy and has detachable feathers at the end, to add interest. The pole is kitten-sized 43 cm (17") but the length of the fleece 120 cm (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.

In a similar vein, I have found a new wand toy which very much pleases me - by Nekoflies. The wand is very sturdy and the attachments affix at the wand end, meaning that we can change them. And since there are a variety of attachments, I feel like I have a toy wardrobe. Click on the site and select Neko Flies Demo and watch the "how to use" demonstration for tips.

By the way, there are also videos of cats playing on the site but many of them do exactly what I advised AGAINST (that is, the purrson just dangles or swings the wand rather than setting up a real hunting course); so please don't take this as a model of proper play.

Instead, to use any of the above toys, have your purrson drag it along the floor. You can watch it and then pounce on it. 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. Or sneaks under some crumpled paper or a cushion left on the floor.

Bug-type Toys (on a string or wire): 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.

You can also try some of the bug attachments made by Nekoflies.

Bird-type Toys on a String: Ah, the flash of feathers! While I had tried several feather toys on poles, my very favourite is called Da Bird.
Inspecting Feathers of 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 ( 90 cm or 3' to keep the human from getting hurt when I pounce), plus a similar-sized 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!

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.

The Laser Pointer: I have loved a good workout with a laser pointer which is every human's 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 Canadian) 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!

Sad to say, the laser pointer no longer interests me. It's boring because I never got to catch the light! My paws were on it but could never grasp it. In an attempt to re-new my interest, Themselves put layers of tissue paper (with a few small toys hidden between said layers) out, and wafted the pointer over that. At least this way I get to catch something!

However, and this is a big however, some behaviourists are now advising against excessive use of this toy because we can become obsessed by it and trigger off some version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. So my advice is to use it sparingly, rather than as your main source of stimulation.

Wands: Toys on a Stick

Wands are Wonderful
I love my three-foot feather wand (about 90 cm). 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.)

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. Then Herself puts it away for the night and I'm then ready for a snack.

Enough already! Trained you purrsons in the fine art of interactive play and evenings will never be the same.