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Pet Connection: Teaching your cat to play right is fun

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7D

Inside every cat is a lion. Or a tiger. Or a lynx. Or, really, all of these great hunters. And in your cat's mind, it's a wild predator, too.

All cats are. They love to lurk and prowl and chase and pounce. An indoor cat doesn't have the opportunity to go after real prey (unless you have mice in your home), but still has strong hunting instincts.

This genetic coding doesn't disappear just because it lives a royal lifestyle in your home and has meals delivered on the feline equivalent of a silver platter.

When a cat's need to hunt isn't fulfilled with live action, it turns to the next best thing: feet moving beneath the covers, hands dangling at an owner's side, arms, legs, you name it. Instead of letting a kitten believe your body parts are fair game, provide it with toys that will satisfy that urge to hunt as well as save your skin.

It's all too easy to accidentally encourage kittens to bite or scratch in play, but this type of aggressive behavior can turn into a big, painful problem as the kitten grows up.

Never "arm wrestle" with a young cat, and keep some distance between you through play with toys that don't involve direct contact with the kitten.

When kitten teeth or claws touch human skin, screech loudly and immediately walk away. Kittens learn fast that playing rough ends the game, especially when there are other things to play with.

Cats like toys they can stalk, chase, pounce on and bite. Turn your home into an indoor hunting ground with perches for watching the outdoor world go by (such as a window-box bird feeder), scratching posts for paw marking and nail maintenance, cat trees for climbing, resting and observing, and an ever-changing assortment of toys, toys, toys.

Puzzle toys are particularly good for giving your cat an outlet for its hunting instincts and ensuring that it keeps its sleek, sinewy physique. Wands with feathers or other dangly bits and wind-up or battery-operated toys that move on their own excite a cat's chase instinct.

Balls inside a track let a cat paw for "prey," just as if it were exploring a mouse hole. The fast, erratic motion of laser pointers and flashlights increase a cat's ability to think and move quickly. (Direct the beam up and down the stairs to give your cat a real workout.)

And don't forget the classic catnip-filled mice for rolling and rabbit-kicking under the influence.

To keep your cat interested in his toys, change them every few days. If your cat sees the same ones over and over again, it will get bored and look for something new to play with. Cats being what they are, it will probably be something expensive or fragile that you don't want treated as a toy.

Those laser pointers, flashlights and wand toys have especially high value to cats because they are just so darn much fun. Bring them out less often than other toys, and limit the amount of time your cat is allowed to play with them.

For some cats these toys are addictive, and they will stand in front of the closet where the laser or wand is stored and yowl plaintively until they are brought out.

Remember, if you give in even once, you have just taught your cat exactly how to manipulate you. To help soften your cat's disappointment when these favorite toys are put away, reward with a treat afterward or give your cat another favorite toy, such as a catnip mouse.

The word "toy" just doesn't seem to cover how important these items are to our pets, especially an indoor cat. Indulge your pet with the gift of play, and you'll both be happier for it.

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