The cat is, above all else and on the most basic level, a predator. Some experts would argue that she is, in fact, the ultimate predator. The cat in the wild uses every skill in her repertoire to survive. “Stalk, Hunt, Catch, Kill, Eat” makes up a major portion of her day.
The cat is also, of course, prey. As a small animal surrounded by larger animals who are almost as cunning as she is, a cat in the wild can fall victim to many dangers. She is not only in peril of becoming someone else’s lunch, she is prone to parasites and disease, to weather extremes or to man-made dangers like cars. The life of a feral cat is not an easy one.
Our pet kitties, on the other hand, are protected from many of these dangers. They enjoy a life of luxury and relative safety. Although keeping a cat indoors is much better for the cat, there are sacrifices that the cat has to make to enjoy those comforts. They pay for the privilege of safety by giving up some of the instinctive activities that wild cats utilize for survival.
Even an indoor/outdoor cat only has access to hunting a portion of the time. Hunting no longer involves the drive to survive. When cats enter into domestic life, they have to stop being cats in many ways. These restrictions, though the tradeoff is worth it, can sometimes lead to behavioral and health issues. At the very basic level, we are looking at a reservoir of instinctive energy that has nowhere to go.
This can manifest in anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, depression. It can express itself as the need to overeat, or a finicky appetite. It can lead to litter box behavior problems, a primary cause for cats to be surrendered to shelters. It can even lead to health problems such as obesity and its many related ills or to over-grooming and the resultant coat, skin and digestive problems.
None of these are simple issues with one cure-all solution, of course. All of them, however, can be helped to some extent by play therapy.
“But My Cat Doesn’t Play!”
Many cat-guardians, when they first hear about play therapy, will respond, “But my cat doesn’t play!”
The truth here is that the cat does, indeed, play - or it will play once the right game or toy or method is discovered. Every cat has her price, without fail. Even elderly cats who don’t have much energy will eventually have that hunting instinct sparked when their human finds just the right trigger.
Hunting is, after all, an instinct in all cats. It is not simply a fun thing to do, or a desire, or a pastime. It is something deep and primal that lives in side every cat, but has been suppressed by a lifetime of domestic comfort.
If the cat’s human is patient and persistent, that instinct will awaken. The predatory light in kitty’s eyes will go on. A paw will reach out and swipe at that toy. Once that first step is taken, it’s only a matter of time before human and cat are enjoying daily playtime together and the cat once again has an outlet for her primal hunting energy.
The keys to finding just that right game for each individual cat all lie with the human: patience, persistence and enthusiasm.
Patience is needed to keep trying, even though for the first few days the kitty might show very little interest. Persistence is needed to experiment with different toys and methods until just the right combination is found. Enthusiasm may be the most essential component of all: the cat’s guardian must put their own delight and excitement into the game (even if, at first, their cat thinks they’ve gone off the deep end).
The human must believe that fishing pole toy is a mousey, skittering between the legs of the ottoman. That feather toy is a real bird, fluttering through the air, or struggling, injured and tempting, upon the carpet. By pouring belief and joy into the human side of the game, the spark of fun will be lit on the cat’s side as well.
“The game,” as a wise but fictional sleuth was oft known to say, “Is afoot!”
The key is not to give up. Faith must be maintained. It will help the cat’s guardian to know that many cats, perhaps thousands, have been helped through their problems (and those without problems simply helped to more fulfilling home lives) by play therapy.
Play Therapy: Secrets Of The Game
Once that magic wand has been found, and the cat is engaging in play, there are a few tips and tricks to get the most out of the therapy.
First, the pet-parent should set aside a special time each day for play. Even ten minutes a day, at around the same time, will be seen by the cat as a comforting routine. Cats love routine, and always appreciate that their humans are making them a priority in their lives. The more consistent and reliable the playtime is, the more helpful it will be to the kitty.
Since the play is being used to mimic hunting, it is beneficial to center the game around a meal or snack time. In the real world of the predator, the “game” means Hunt – Catch – Kill – Eat. If, after a resounding playtime, the cat can be fed a meal or at least a favorite treat, the final component of “Eat” can be incorporated, thus truly satisfy the hunter’s instinct.Gauge the play to the individual cat.
If the kitty is older, obese, or ill, it’s best to start slowly and build up the energy as the cat feels better, and adjusts. It should go without saying that any physical issue should be monitored by the cat’s veterinarian.
For the cat who is anxious or otherwise full of energy she doesn’t know where to spend, building to a fast pace, and really getting her tired out may be helpful. (Again, seek your vet’s assurance that the kitty is up to that level of activity first.) Some cats actually need to be brought to the point that they’re flopped on their side, purring and panting, before they are done “getting the willies out”.
A cat who is restless at night can benefit by fitting play-therapy time in just before bedtime. Many owners report how doing this has led, eventually, to everyone actually being able to get a good night’s sleep!Above all, the human should be having as much fun as the cat. If the cat’s person really feels the fun, sees the toy as prey, and gets into the game, the cat will enjoy it so much more.
The true benefit of play therapy is not just that it satisfies the hunting instinct of the cat. It also builds a very special bond between cat and human.
Not A Miracle Cure (But It Comes Close)
Play therapy alone is not a miracle cure. Some feline problems require much more than a simple daily game of hunt and catch with the owner. However, there are very few problems that playing daily with the cat does not help to some extent. The vast majority of issues will be eased, and the cat’s behavior will improve over time, if the owner dedicates themselves to the playtime routine.
Again, the keys are Patience, Persistence and Enthusiasm. Once the routine is established, results will start to flow in. Each cat is unique and special, and those results will be manifest at different rates and on different levels depending on the cat, her human and their home situation.
However, there are very, very few cats out there who will not show a beneficial response to having dedicated play time with their guardians every day.
You Are Your Cat’s Best Therapist
Whether you are trying to help your kitty through behavior or health problems, or simply looking for ways to enrich her already happy life, you are your cat’s best therapist - and her best friend.
Not only will your cat benefit from play therapy, but you will find that you learn more about her, you know her better, and you enjoy her in ways that you didn’t know you could, when playtime becomes a fun routine in your life together.
Every cat is the ultimate hunter inside. Satisfy that inner wild thing with play!