By Christina Chan
If you’re a cat owner, you likely know that the picture-perfect idea of a cat purring and laying calmly at arm’s length while you pet her is inaccurate—at least some of the time. Cats are known for getting the kitten crazies, or bursts of energy that range from running and jumping around the house at high speeds to animated play-fighting with other household pets.
This type of behavior can be alarming or frustrating for cat owners, but, according to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist in Westborough, Massachusetts, “it is their natural behavior.”
Dodman describes these sudden bursts of energy as the zoomies. The behavior is hardwired into cats for a few reasons. Cats will tend to sleep when it’s pitch-dark. But at dusk, they’re most active. Instinctive behavior they might exhibit outside, such as prey chasing, translates into activity that is within a confined household.
“When we put cats into conventional homes, we’re really limiting their ability to explore their habitat,” Dodman says. “The cat’s ancestors lived in much larger territories.”
If your kitty suddenly exhibits a high level of activity, here are a few methods you can use to help calm her down.
1. Structure in Playtime
Just like dogs, cats need an energy outlet. And if they don’t have viable ways of letting that energy out during the day, you may find them careering around the house, jumping on top of furniture, and getting into areas they shouldn’t. But Dodman stresses the importance of recognizing cats need to release their energy somewhere.
By structuring in playtime with your cat, you can reduce unwanted or over-the-top behavior. Using cat-friendly toys, such as interactive LED lasers or a tennis ball modified to contain treats, can work. “You’re having fun, interacting with your cat, and directing their energy,” says Dodman of structured playtime. If you use a laser pointer for play, make sure to include opportunities for the cat to catch the “prey,” such as landing the laser on a treat, and letting the cat pounce on it. Without the ability to catch the prey, laser pointer play can lead to obsessive behavioral disorders, such as shadow chasing.
Certified animal behaviorist Jennie Lane of Alexandria, Virginia, recommends food-dispensing toys for some cats because it approximates their instinct to hunt for food. Scheduled playtimes might be only five to 10 minutes long for some cats. “Some of them can become over-stimulated and get aggressive when they play too long,” Lane says.
2. Create Harmony in the Household
Because the predecessors to the domestic house cat were solitary hunters, having a household with multiple cats or other pets can stress cats out. Urine marking or inappropriate urination or defecation outside the litterbox are clear signs of stress. According to Lane, as you approach having 10 cats in the home, the chance of urine marking goes up 100 percent.
Personalities can change dramatically within a household whenever the number of cats in the home increases. Although it’s possible to have a multi-cat household, there’s more work to be done to ensure harmony within the group. In this instance, Lane recommends consulting with an experienced animal behaviorist to help sort out issues and ask your veterinarian for recommendations. Your veterinarian will look at factors like an individual cat’s history, specific triggers to problems, and a cat’s early life. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but Lane says increased exercise and mental stimulation tend to help.
There are some cases where adding a cat will remedy discord within a household. According to Dodman, if an excess of play behavior is directed toward you, owners should consider adding a cat so they are interacting with each other.
3. Address Any Hyperthyroid Issues
Not all unwanted behavior from cats is behavioral. With older cats, the most common physical reason for overactive activity is hyperthyroidism. Cats with this condition have an overactive thyroid gland, which is the control mechanism for their energy levels. Subsequently, you’ll have a cat with bursts of energy. “Cats with hyperthyroidism don’t sleep very much and will have a voracious appetite,” says Dr. Erin Wilson, a veterinarian and medical director at the New York ASPCA. “It generally occurs in senior kitties,” she adds.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism in cats includes the medication Methimazole, surgical removal of the thyroid gland, and radioactive iodine therapy.
4. Create Safe Outdoor Experiences
If cats don’t have safe, structured ways to entertain themselves, they’ll figure out ways to use that energy on their own. Dodman likens off-the-wall behavior from cats to “cabin fever.” They’re cooped up inside, and though your cat may seek outside stimulation, dangers like traffic and wild animals typically make this an impractical solution.
However, there are ways to provide safe outdoor activities for your cat. Lane recommends using a harness for cats to explore with you or providing an outdoor enclosure such as a catio, which allows your feline to enjoy being outside without being subject to predators.
5. Allow the Behavior
Feline experts agree that typically, when cats exhibit sudden energy bursts, it’s often just what cats do. The first question cat owners might ask is whether the cat actually needs to be calmed down. “If cats are merely running and jumping around for five minutes, it’s not necessary to stop the cat,” Wilson says. “It’s the same as stopping children from running and playing.”
But when the activity becomes dangerous, such as your kitty jumping off the top of a fridge, Wilson advises cat owners try redirecting the behavior with a toy to chase or even an empty cardboard box to keep the cat busy.
From a biological standpoint, owners should expect kittens, especially those under the age of 6 months, to have a ton of energy. Owners who allow the behavior will see the kitten calm down soon enough. “They tend to run around and crash,” Dodman says. “Activities like play wrestling are a necessary practice and skill for their adult life.”
Cats do have a need for mental stimulation and exercise. Besides addressing any behavioral issues and unhealthy household conflicts, it’s important to remember energy bursts are simply a part of who they are.