Image via iStock.com/sulwuya
By Diana Bocco
Although cats are natural hunters, most domestic cats never get to express those instincts—at least not out in nature. “It’s good that we don’t let many house cats run amok eating songbirds, but many behavior problems (let alone weight gain and related physical problems) can be linked back to plain old boredom and inactivity,” says Kayla Fratt, an IAABC associate certified dog behavior consultant and CEO of Journey Dog Training. “Cats that bite when being petted or vocalize or bother their owners at odd hours are often dramatically helped by incorporating regular predatory play.”
Cat Feather Wands
When pet parents use a cat feather wand to play with their cats, they can make the lure move like birds, mice or other types of prey, according to Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM. “Keep the lure on the ground and relatively still for a while, then make it twitch or skitter before it ‘tries to escape’ with a sudden leap or dash,” Dr. Coates suggests. “This encourages cats to express their predatory behavior.”
Cat wand toys like the Hartz Just for Cats play wand allow you to challenge your cat just the right amount and cater to your cat's play style. “These toys are great because you, as the human, can make it harder or easier for your cat,” says Fratt. “Some cats prefer wild, flying bird-like movements, while others prefer scuttling on the ground.”
Food-Dispensing Cat Treat Toys
In nature, when the predatory drive is successfully completed, cats are left with something to eat, says Dr. Coates.
Toys like the PetSafe SlimCat interactive cat feeder work great for this purpose. “The ball is great because it allows your cat to chase, pounce, bat and even eat while you’re away,” says Fratt. “It’s a hunting and predatory toy in that all of the aspects of play … are part of what would be included in normal predatory behavior.”
Playing to earn their food also activates the cat's area of the brain that releases dopamine, according to Fratt. “This means that playing to earn food actually makes your cat happier and more relaxed,” says Fratt.
Food dispensing cat treat toys are also great for times when you have to be out of the house. “They promote activity and prevent boredom when you aren’t around to play with your cat,” says Dr. Coates.
Cat puzzle toys can help prevent boredom, which is a big problem for indoor-only domestic cats, according to Dr. Coates. “They can also force cats to use their brains and bodies in ways that mimic predatory behavior,” says Dr. Coates. “For instance, using paws to tease kibble out of a tube is somewhat similar to manipulating a mouse to prevent injury.”
Toys like the Trixie 5-in-1 activity center or the Petstages grass patch hunting cat box mimic natural hunting strategies and situations a cat would encounter when trying to catch prey. “The activity center has the added benefit of really challenging your cat to creatively use his hunting skills to paw at and remove ‘prey' (treats),” Fratt says.
Cat Toy Mice
Playing with small, stimulating cat toy mice gives cats the satisfaction of the kill, according to Dr. Coates. “Individual cats seem to have their own preferences as to the types they like best, so try several: plush, rubber, squeaky, those with bells,” Dr. Coates says. Applying a little catnip to the toy can also help attract a cat’s attention to it—or you can try something like the SmartyKat Skitter Critters mice toys, which already contain catnip.
Cat Laser Toys
Although laser toys can help encourage physical exercise and can also provide mental stimulation, they're not always the best choice for all cats. “I’ve seen cases where it works out, but in most cases, I see the cat getting frustrated or obsessive, even attacking the owner after play sessions or appearing unable to settle,” says Fratt.
The reason behind this is that while these electronic cat toys activate that chasing bit of predatory behavior, they cannot satisfy the urge to capture prey. One way to avoid this might be to direct the cat to a treasure. “If your cat seems disgruntled after chasing a laser pointer for a while, try tossing a plush toy on the floor that he can 'kill',” Dr. Coates says.
When you watch cats at play, it quickly becomes clear that most of what they do mimics hunting behavior —stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, scratching and the like, according to Dr. Coates. “As pet parents, we should embrace what is natural for cats, not fight against it—it just makes sense to pick toys that satisfy our cats’ need to hunt,” Dr. Coates says.