Pet Connection is on vacation. This column was originally published on Dec. 31, 2012.
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, he’s a wild predator, too. In fact, 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 he still has strong hunting instincts.
This genetic coding doesn’t disappear just because he lives a royal lifestyle in your home and has his meals delivered on the feline equivalent of a silver platter. When a cat’s need to hunt isn’t fulfilled with live action, he 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 him with toys that will satisfy his 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 gets bigger. 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 his hunting instincts and ensuring that he keeps his 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 him paw for “prey,” just as if he 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 him 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 out every few days. If he sees the same ones over and over again, he’ll get bored and look for something new to play with. Cats being who they are, it will probably be something expensive or fragile that you don’t want him to treat 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.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books.