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Emotional Rescue: How Play Meets Needs Of Young Cats

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When you waggle a feather for your kitten, toss her a catnip mouse, or encourage her to chase a wand type toy, you’re doing a lot more than having fun with her. Play is exercise, stress reduction, and motor skill training all in one. For kittens, play is also an important part of social bonding, making it an essential element of a Fear Free Happy Home.

Kittens play—and learn—by chasing and pouncing. Their predatory instinct kicks in when they are one to three months old. Object play develops at two months, as eye-to-paw coordination improves, allowing them to manipulate small moving things. From three months, they become more sophisticated both with objects and with other kittens; as they grow into “cattenhood,” or adolescence, they become more effective at subduing play partners and at self-protection.

To help make your catten’s growth joyous, smooth, and healthy, channel her energy with several play sessions a day. Because domestic cats are built for speed rather than endurance, play with them several times a day. Play before meals: it’s the ‘hunt, then eat’ pattern. Interactive toys and food puzzles are wonderful for this purpose.

How long should you play with her? I’ve heard, “Play until the cat is panting,” but no veterinarian would sanction that degree of exertion. A good maximum is 20 to 25 minutes. You know when Noodles has had enough: she’ll flop or walk away, perhaps to return a few minutes later for more, after she’s cooled off a bit.

Switching toys each time so she doesn’t always know what she’s getting keeps Noodles interested. Let her do what she does naturally: focus, hunt, stalk, chase, pounce, and grab. Use the laser pointer or a flashlight, but let it land on a treat—there should always be a reward, closure. She needs to dissipate her energy healthily, constructively, and thoroughly.

Play the way your catten wants to play—does she prefer ground-prey? Bird-prey? Slither or flutter, wiggle, dart, or zoom through the air? Noodles will tell you how she likes it. Her feline instincts blossom and her “inner hunter” emerges.

Provide several cat trees, at least five or six feet tall. Place them in front of windows, in social areas of the home, so Noodles can watch outside, as well as climb and scratch. Play with her on and around those perches. It allows your maturing catten environmental control: that ability to see who is doing what to whom, when, and where, at all times, which is so crucial for cats, especially in a multi-cat home. Some cats might become distressed with activity outside, such as seeing dogs or other cats. Watch that Noodles does not become agitated or upset by the goings on outside. If she does, close the blinds during active parts of the day.

Has Noodles lost a friend? Play eases grief; cattens mourning for a fur-friend adjust far more rapidly, in my experience, because they’ve been distracted through action. Those endorphins whizzing around the brain help improve mood.

Play before bedtime can help Noodles sleep further into the night. I’m willing to bet the quality of sleep is healthier, as well.

Play helps cats who previously had access to the outdoors but now must adapt to an indoor life. To give them the best quality of life possible, it’s crucial not only to provide territory, “cat TV,” posts for climbing and scratching, and potted grass, but also interactive play—lots of it—to ensure that normal feline instincts are able to emerge and thrive! Strong and healthy cattens grow to strong and healthy adults.

Play keeps your catten physically fit, mentally stimulated, and emotionally balanced. It eases tension between her and other cats in the house. It crushes boredom and is terrifically bonding. It activates the couch-potato feline dulled by domestication. Cattens, like teenagers, have mood swings, and there’s nothing like play for shattering stress and demolishing depression. Along with love and respect, it’s the best therapy there is.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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