Playing with cats, especially multiple cats of varying ages and temperaments, can be quite challenging. The more aggressive cats tend to dominate playtime leaving timid cats, older cats, and kittens just watching from the sidelines. Or worse yet, the less aggressive cats get trampled by the other cats and become afraid to play!
Playing with cats, especially multiple cats, can be quite challenging. But it is important that ALL cats get to experience quality playtime every day to support their good health and emotional well-being, as well as improve the bonds between cats and their people.
Whether old or young, aggressive or shy, new arrival or seasoned resident, we make sure that every cat gets to enjoy quality cat play each day. Playing with cats is a priority in our sanctuary. And it has helped to curb some inappropriate behaviors as well!
During our many years of living with multiple cats, we’ve learned some techniques to help ensure that, when playing with cats, all of our cats get to enjoy daily playtime. While not everything we do may work for you and your cats, hopefully, our methods will give you some ideas on ways to make playing with cats more fun and enjoyable for all of you!
We incorporate several different types of playtime for playing with cats: Monitored Interactive Play, Interactive Play, Solitary Play, Private Play, and Unstructured Interactive Play. All playtime is scheduled or set up for the same times every day and we try to adhere to the schedule as closely as possible. The exception to this when playing with cats is Unstructured Interactive Play.
Monitored Interactive Play and Interactive Play
Monitored Interactive Play and Interactive Play are combined and scheduled for 15 – 20 minutes twice daily. This time spent playing with cats is something of a free-for-all. Often, the timid cats, older cats, and kittens will simply watch the action from the sidelines. This playtime is designed to challenge and exercise the more active and aggressive cats. The point is to wear them out so they will be less inclined to cause trouble.
Mid-morning, usually around 10:00am, we start the first play session. We chose this time simply for our convenience. The cats have had breakfast, napped, and are just waking up again, ready for more action. And, we have had some time to get chores done and ourselves ready for the day! So it is time to start the first session of playing with cats.
We begin by setting up 3 Panic Mouse mice in 3 separate areas of the house. To keep the cats from knocking over or running off with the mice, we tape the base supports to the floor and the mouse wand to the moving arm. We then turn them on and stand back! Because we don’t actively participate but battery-powered toys are used, we refer to this as Monitored Interactive Play.
Sometimes we will use remote-controlled cars with fuzzy toys or streamers taped to them. The cats have a ball with these but most of us are terrible drivers and tend to crash or flip the cars more than drive them around! Also, because they are rather light, they are easier for a cat to knock over or run off with! The cars require more activity on our part than the Panic Mice so we don’t use these as often when playing with cats but they make a nice change for the cats!
After about 5 minutes or so of Monitored Interactive Play, we leave the mice going for the cats that prefer them, and grab a couple of wand or fishing pole toys, such as DaBird and begin Interactive Play. It takes some practice but more cats get to play if you can learn to use one in each hand!
During this time, we make the cats run up and down the furniture and cat trees, scramble across the floor, and leap wildly into the air. We try to get them more active and aggressive cats to play like crazy until they are too tired to play anymore! Remember, a tired cat is a happy cat. And happy cats are less likely to pick fights or pee on your pillow!
We also make a point to let every cat have a turn chasing and catching the toy by dragging it near them or letting it land right in front of them. Believe it or not, our cats have learned that they get more playtime by taking turns! (More on this later.)
During the warm, nice days, we will take the fishing pole toys outside. This gives the cats some much-needed fresh air and sunshine and allows more room for running and leaping! We will often run too, swinging the toys as we go. We probably look ridiculous playing with cats like this but the cats have a ball!
After about 10 or 15 minutes of Interactive Play, everyone is usually exhausted (especially us!) so the activity winds down, the Panic Mice are turned off, and it’s time for treats! Then everyone takes a break (especially us!).
Around 5:00 pm, we do it all again! When this session of playing with cats is done, they get to have their dinner instead of treats. After eating, they usually wash and take a nap.
This routine, done in the mornings and late afternoons mimics the natural wake, hunt, eat, bathe, sleep cycles common to most cats. However, not every cat thrives on this cycle. This is why Solitary Play, Unstructured Interactive Play, and Private Play is also necessary.
Every morning and each evening, we set up solitary play toys for the cats. Treat Balls are filled and hidden around the house along with fuzzy mice, kickers, and other catnip toys. We also fill a Peek-A-Prize Puzzle Box with a variety of balls, fuzzy catnip toys and treats.
Every few days, we change the items we put in the puzzle box, change the treats used, and vary the catnip toys hidden around the house. We also vary the hiding places for the toys and treats.
To keep the cats interested and challenged., we hide things, behind open doors, inside open cupboards, peeking out from behind a pillow on the couch, behind a water dish, in the cat trees and condos, under the bed, and so on.
And we know the cats enjoy the solitary play because by morning, the treat balls are empty and there are toys scattered all over the house. A side benefit for us is that by making sure there are solitary play toys set up for the easily bored cats, they tend not to try to wake us at 3:00 am to play! And, when we go out during the day, they are less likely to tear up the furniture!
Unstructured Interactive Play
Unstructured Interactive Play is used to distract a cat that is trying to pick a fight with another cat or is so bored they are pestering us in a mean way by clawing or biting at our feet and legs. We keep various wand toys and Cat Teasers stashed in all the rooms of the house so we can easily pull one out and avert disaster.
Unstructured Interactive Play is a great way to distract a cat from a fight and give the other cat the opportunity to escape. And there is a big difference between a cat being pesty with us and being mean and pesty!
When a cat acts negatively toward us or another cat, we pull out a teaser and play for a couple of minutes then put the toy away. If the cat goes right back to the negative behavior, we put them in isolation for 10 – 15 minutes. We do this because we don’t want to encourage these negative behaviors by offering play as a reward for it. On the other hand, we also don’t want to punish a cat for being a cat!
Most of the time, a few minutes of play is distracting enough that the cat forgets about being mean and goes off for solitary play or a nap. It is a form of behavior modification that has worked well for us.
Private Play is reserved for kittens, older cats, timid cats, unsocialized cats, and new arrivals. The cat (or kittens) is taken into a separate room, away from the other cats and the door is closed. Only one person goes in with the cat. We sit on the floor and use a wand toy or Crinkle Ball for someone on one playtime.
Movements start off slow and easy and we speak to them in a soft, friendly manner. The cat is allowed to take his time checking out the toy, sniffing and touching it as they want. The toy is gently wiggled along the floor and up the side of the bed or cat tree. The cat is allowed to “catch” the toy often.
As the cat or kittens become more comfortable and confident, the play becomes more active. Sometimes we will set up a Panic Mouse just for private play and run it at a slow speed. Some cats never get beyond a few minutes of gentle play. Others reach a point where they get totally involved and even begin to demand more active play sessions! Once this happens they are usually actively participating in group play and no longer need private play sessions.
Playing with cats privately keeps the more aggressive cats from dominating play sessions and scaring off other cats. It helps timid cats, unsocialized cats, kittens, and new arrivals to develop confidence and trust. And for older cats, they still get to enjoy playtime without having to compete with the younger, more athletic cats.
Private playtime can also help with a cat that needs more play but becomes mean or overly aggressive during group play. If we have a cat that does not play well with others, he gets locked up during group play so he won’t hurt the other cats. But he still needs playtime – perhaps more playtime than other cats!
So with an overly aggressive cat, we start out with solitary private play using a wand or fishing-pole toy and do 2 or 3 short, 5 minute sessions with him each day. After several solitary private play sessions, we invite another cat to join in. (Usually Murry because he gets along well with everyone!)
Once the aggressive cat is playing well with Murry, we add another cat – usually Frankie. Once the aggressive cat is playing well with Murry and Frankie, we will add Buddy or Barney. Buddy and Barney are rather aggressive during group play but have learned to play well with others. Adding one of them to the private group play sessions increases the competition for the aggressive cat and is a good way for us to test his tolerance level.
Once all 4 cats are playing well together we let the aggressive cat join in the regular group play with all the cats. If he does well, he stays. If he gets mean again, we go back to private group play and continue working with him.
We have had great success with this method. It teaches the aggressive cat that he doesn’t need to be aggressive to play. He learns to take turns with the other cats and that by being nice, he will get to play more! We had to do this with both Buddy and Barney and now they are helping others learn to play nice!
We suspect we may need to do this with little Ruby as she is already starting to get aggressive during group playtime – and she is still a kitten!
In a large, multiple-cat household, kittens, older cats, new arrivals, and timid cats can often become the target of bully cats. They can get pushed out during meal times, chased away from a favorite sleep spot, and be intimidated into unhappiness and depression. Playing with cats utilizing a more private, more relaxed playtime with you can help them to feel less like targets and more like part of the family.
A recent example of this involves Penny, one of the newly arrived kittens. She and her sisters were frequently being picked on by the other girls, especially by Molly. The poor little kittens would often cower in fear. The kittens would observe the group play sessions but never participated. They always got private play sessions each day.
One day, Penny was lying on the couch, minding her own business, when Molly hopped up there and started hissing and growling at her in an effort to intimidate Penny into moving so Molly could lay there. Well, instead of running away, Penny hissed right back and stood her ground! Molly was so shocked by Penny’s behavior that she stared at Penny for a minute then just walked away with a puzzled look on her face! Way to go Penny!
While playing with cats in private play sessions isn’t the answer for everything, we firmly believe that they help build confidence and make the shy and scared little ones feel more secure! And, they help the aggressive ones learn to share!
We have found that by making time daily for playing with cats, our large multiple cat family stays happier and healthier. There is less fussing and fighting with each other. Appetites remain healthy so it is easier to tell if a cat isn’t eating because he is sick. Regular activity helps to keep everybody at a healthy weight. And, we rarely have inappropriate peeing issues!
But for us, the greatest rewards from playing with cats are the strong bonds of friendship and trust we develop with them. They love their playtime and so do we!
So spend some time playing with your cats every day. You might be surprised at how good it makes all of you feel!