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Keeping your cat fit and healthy

Play is very important to cats - from kittenhood right through to old age. In fact, playing with your cat is one of the most enjoyable things about owning one. It also offers great health benefits, encouraging your cat to be active, keep supple and maintain a sleek body condition. More importantly, play can help to encourage cats to express their natural hunting instincts.

Why cats play

Your cat's playful behaviour can be adorable, endearing and at times a little bit frustrating! Kittens start to play from four weeks old, spending most of their time wrestling with other kittens, working out the social pecking order. By the time a kitten is seven to eight weeks old, they will transfer their attention from social play with littermates to predatory play with inanimate objects.

Benefits of exercise

Playing with your cat for just 20 minutes a day not only provides both physical and mental stimulation, but also strengthens the bond between you. It is especially important to ensure indoor cats use up the energy normally reserved for patrolling territory and hunting prey. Indoor cats may need a longer play time, or repeated play morning and evening to keep them fit.

  • Peak activity for kittens and cats occurs in the early morning and in the evening. Play with your pet before you go to bed so your kitten will be ready to sleep when you are.
  • Kittens often play alone and occasionally seem to spook and race away, as if pursued by an invisible pursuer.
  • Toys are fun, but interactive play is also entertaining and one of the best ways to keep your kitten healthy and responsive to you. Always make some toys available to your cat, but keep some away for your own playtime together. These retain their special, novelty value. Never leave your cat/kitten unsupervised with fishing toys or other toys with a length of string etc as this is a risk of strangulation. Make sure all toys left with the kitten are safe, with no small parts that could be chewed and swallowed.
  • Solitary kittens may play more roughly with their owners. They only have you to play with and need to learn to control playful nips and scratches.
  • Never encourage pouncing on or playing with your hands or feet. Although this maybe fun for kittens, habits can last to adulthood and this can encourage aggression to humans in the future.
  • Set aside time for at least two good play sessions a day. With young indoor cats who live alone, you need to activate their 'stalk-chase-pounce' hunting behaviour up to 30 times per day to keep them fulfilled as hunters. This level can be reduced if you have more than one cat and they enjoy chasing and playing with each other, or if your cat is older and less active.
  • The key to getting them interested is to understand their prey. A cat is far more interested in a toy if it is wiggling under a sofa or a cabinet, has just hidden under a mat, or makes sudden darting movements. Make the toy behave as a mouse would!

Playing with your cat

The best games tend to be those involving toys, which do not need to be expensive. Use feathers or cloth strips dangling from sticks, catnip-filled mice, or wind-up toys. Also, think about installing an indoor climbing frame incorporating a scratching post.

  • A bucket filled with crumpled paper or ping-pong balls can make a useful distraction. When your kitten attempts to stalk you, throw a ball downstairs for them.
  • Leave a large paper bag on the floor for diving into and ripping to pieces. Do not use plastic bags and cut off any handles that can get caught around your cat's neck.
  • Cardboard boxes to jump in and out of are also fun. You can glue several boxes together, linked by peepholes, for kitten hide-and-seek, and put a ball or mouse inside.
  • Make a sack of fabric stuffed with dried catnip, a herb which drives some cats wild.
  • Try dangling a 'fishing rod' toy with feathers or bells at the end of a string.
  • Some cats enjoy chasing and jumping at the light beams from a small flashlight or laser pointer.

Once you've finished, put the toy out of sight to keep things exciting when you bring it out again. You'll notice that your cat's favourite games will probably be a playful variation of their natural hunting instincts: 'mouse pounce', 'fish scoop', 'bird swat' and 'play fighting'.

For more ideas for games to play with your cat, read the Playtime article.

Redirecting playful aggression

If your kitten is keen on attacking your ankles, try and re-direct this behaviour onto toys.

If you have just the one kitten, you may wonder if a playmate would solve playful aggression. It might, but it might not. Two kittens will often keep each other physically occupied, but on the other hand you might end up with two predators instead of one. Consult your vet or a behaviourist for methods to prevent play aggression towards humans.

Catnip heaven

Catnip can really spice up your play sessions. This is a natural herb and completely safe. Most cats go wild for catnip, although others will not be affected by it at all. Some toys contain the herb, or you can buy it from pet shops to renew your cat's interest in a particular toy. You can also grow your own catnip: just make sure that it is the correct, cat-safe, herb. Catnip sensitivity begins in most kittens at around four months of age. Apply to scratching posts to encourage use.

Why some cats are more active than others

Some cat breeds have a reputation for being asleep much of the time, whilst others are traditionally a good deal more energetic. Pure breeds with reputations for high activity include Siamese, Abyssinian, Oriental and Turkish cats. More languid cats include the Persian, Himalayan, British Shorthair and Ragdoll breeds. Of course there are many unwanted, active and fun kittens in rescue centres/shelters just waiting for homes.

Cats are like people when it comes to exercise: some are simply more active than others. However, it is not normal for your cat to sleep all the time and be uninterested in interacting with you. Consult your vet if your cat is very inactive as this may indicate a medical problem. In older cats, inactivity is often the only sign of osteoarthritis and if a cat has a heart or respiratory condition they may be reluctant to play.

What's Normal?

You live with your cat and know what is normal. If you do think something may be wrong, never hesitate to report any concerns to your vet.

  • Eyes:
    Should be bright and clear. Report any discharge or redness to your vet.
  • Ears:
    Should be clean and free of discharge, odour and redness. Untreated ear problems are painful and can cause hearing loss.
  • Nose:
    Should be clean and without discharge or sores.
  • Mouth: Gums should be pink or black with the teeth free from tartar or plaque. Check mouth and lips for sores or growths. Bad breath can signal dental problems.
  • Coat:
    Your kitten's coat should be shiny and clean with no scurf or black flecks.
  • Weight:
    Active, playful kittens are rarely overweight. However, after neutering and approaching adulthood is a time cats can gain weight. Check your cat's body condition and consult your vet for nutritional advice.
  • Litter-box habits:
    Changes in litter-box habits and in the frequency or quality of urine or stool could indicate health problems. If you notice such changes, contact your vet immediately.

Stay active

Overweight kittens become overweight cats, and fat cats aren't healthy cats. Being overweight makes cats more likely to suffer from the pain of osteoarthritis, and conditions such as diabetes and urinary problems. Keeping your cat in ideal body condition is important. Exercise will help control your cat's weight and prevention is always better than cure.

To keep up activity levels, invest in some toys, an indoor climbing frame or a scratching post. Introduce regular play sessions and remember that anything that moves will appeal to cats, as it gives them a chance to polish those hunting skills.

A cat's home and social environment are also important in encouraging activity. Does your home contain many structures to climb or jump onto? Do you put away your cat's toys after play sessions, so their reappearance is always irresistible? If your home is split-level, try placing your cat's food bowl on a different floor from the sleeping area to encourage as much stair climbing as possible.

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