Play is good for the body & brain

February 8th 2017

(Published in Your Cat magazine, January 2017)

Lots of scientific evidence shows that – in both human and non-human animals – play is good for the brain. Grizzly Bears that play the most, survive the longest. Rats that play more with other rats develop bigger, more complex brains. Play stimulates nerve growth in the portions of the brain that process emotions and executive function. The International Society of Feline Medicine and the American Association of Feline Practitioners state that providing toys and opportunities for play is one of the five pillars of a healthy environment for cats. Indeed, it has been said that play is as critical to health as sleep or food. But how much time do you dedicate to playtime with your cat? Are you guilty of assuming that your older cat isn’t interested in playing?

Why is play so important?
Play is a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment. It is commonly associated with youngsters, but play occurs (in different ways) at any life stage. Play is not just a pastime activity; it serves as an important tool in numerous aspects of daily life. Not only does play promote and aid physical development (such as hand–eye coordination, physical exercise etc), but it also aids in cognitive development and social skills.

• In kittens and young cats, play often includes ‘self-play’ which involves exploring the ways in which their body works and interacts with the world (for example, chasing their tail, biting their own feet etc). This type of play tends to reduce with age as body awareness increases.
• Social play fighting involves rehearsing social encounters. Mutual play between cats teaches social awareness and problem-solving.
• Exercise from playing helps your cat maintain a healthy weight. Physical fitness is important for all cats, but especially for indoor-only cats. Anything that increases locomotion and reduces inactive behaviour will have a positive effect on health of your cat.
• Object play allows cats to rehearse their natural hunting instinct. Play explores all parts of the predatory sequence: search, stalk, chase, pounce, catch and manipulate. It is a process of trial-and-error and cats constantly learn from play interactions. In the 10,000 years since humans adopted cats as vermin-catchers, we have not selectively bred them to match an indoor lifestyle. So it is vital we provide that outlet.
• Play is a great way of relieving stress. It also helps build confidence, so can be particularly useful for shy or anxious cats.
• Interactive play helps to strengthen the feline/human bond and builds relationships and trust.
• In older cats, physical play delays mental decline due to its problem-solving and physical fitness properties. As a cat ages, its mobility and energy may reduce as well as exploratory behaviour, but gentle games are often still enjoyed. Cats can even play whilst lying down which will still be beneficial both physically and mentally.
• Puzzle feeders provide independent enrichment and hunting opportunities that feeding straight from a bowl cannot provide. This can help reduce attention-seeking behaviour and is a great way of disassociating owners from food.
• Play relieves boredom and provides mental stimulation – allowing cats to exercise their cognitive and motor skills. Indoor-only cats in particular will need a lot of play to provide the stimulation they require.

Inspiring your cat to play
Don’t assume your cat isn’t interested in play. Most cats can be convinced! Elderly, toothless, arthritic, blind, 3-legged-cats can all be taught to enjoy playtime. Each cat will vary in its motivation – understanding the specific likes and dislikes of your own individual cat will enable you to provide the best opportunities for play. Recent research has shown that many cat owners dedicate time for interactive play with their cats, but that only between 1-5% of owners provide their cats with food toys as enrichment.

There are different styles of play, each with their own benefits:

1) Interactive play – this involves using fishing-rod type toys and most importantly, YOU. Move the toy so that the target at the end behaves like a prey animal – make it creep, dart under and behind things, alternating between fast & slow movements. Encourage stalking and pouncing, sometimes making the toy slip out from under their paws for them to try again (although if your cat is only just building an interest in play, ensure every catch initially is a successful one). Allow your cat to plan their moves – don’t just manically whizz the toy around. Play should be strategic! In a multi-cat household, play should be dedicated to each cat individually to avoid competition. At the very least, the same person can play with 2 cats at once using 1 wand-toy in each hand.

2) Independent play – this can be solitary self-play (typical in kittens and young cats) or with toys such as balls, mice, a ball of scrunched up paper… Keep rotating the toys regularly so your cat does not get bored. You can also produce these toys in random places for your cat to discover of their own accord and they will soon learn to hunt out these toys. Consider all the different senses when thinking about toys – sight, sound, scent, touch and taste. Tinkling bells, crinkly sounds, squeaks etc can be explored. Catnip scented toys will appeal to most cats and any scented toys will be beneficial for blind cats. Texture can include plastic, rubber, fur, feathers, all sorts of different fabrics for cats to dig their claws into. Sometimes a food flavour can help appeal toys to cats.

3) Activity feeders – seeking food is an important aspect of the predatory sequence and yet most cats are fed at set times of the day in a set location. Food puzzles are toys that make your cat work to get the food out. The cat can either use their paw to fish bits of food out, or manipulate items by nudging with their nose or batting with their paw to get food to fall out. Initially, obtaining food from the toy needs to be as easy as obtaining food from a bowl. The cat should have to do very little work – the toy should be filled with as much food as possible and should have several large holes to allow food to fall out easily (for example). The toy should also be manipulated easily. Mixing some tasty treats among the cat’s regular food will also encourage interest in the toy. Show the cat how the toy works. Gradually as your cat becomes more interested and adept at using the toy, increase the difficulty. Activity feeders can be left for cats to discover themselves – or even just tiny meal portions hidden for cats to find. See foodpuzzlesforcats.com for some great ideas of activity feeders.

4) Social play – can involve chasing or play-fighting rough-and-tumble style. Cats are more likely to indulge in social play with each other if the environment is conducive to doing so safely. Obstacles, varying heights, and hiding places ensure cats can have breaks from play and provide camouflage. Breaking eye contact diffuses social tension and prevents arousal from escalating to agonistic levels inappropriate for play.

When is play not play?
It is important to read a cat’s body language to be able to interpret whether they are really playing, or enjoying the play:

• Social play between cats – sometimes play can escalate and become one-sided bullyish behaviour, or the play can ‘overflow’ into aggression. Watch for early signs such as direct eye-contact between the cats and redirect this using a fishing-rod toy. Aggression often involves vocalisation such as hissing and growling and the cats will usually have their ears flattened against their heads. Play should be mutual and reciprocated.
• Do not encourage hands and feet play. This can become a major issue when attempting to move around the house without a cat scratching, clawing or biting at your feet or any moving hands. Keep hands a safe distance from claws. Hands and feet should not be associated with hunting and killing. If your cat does accidentally bite you during play, immediately stop playing and stay still.
• Be careful about inducing frustration during play. Different toys and play styles will fulfil different parts of the sequence, but the catch part is the most satisfying for your cat. A common issue occurs when using laser pens due to the ‘catch’ part of the predatory sequence being incomplete. Ensure you switch to a catchable toy before playtime is over. Similarly, persistent moving of wand-like toys and not allowing the cat the success of the catch can lead to frustration.
• Competition over toys – sometimes play can help improve relationships between cats in a household, but care has to be taken that there is not competition (particularly over activity feeders) and that one cat’s play isn’t inhibited due to the presence of another cat. In these cases, ensure each cat has the chance for independent play.

5 Top Tips to get your cat moving this winter
1) Be inventive & create your own toy – the best toys are actually the least expensive! Variety is key. A shoe lace with a feather on the end, a cork, a ping pong ball, screwed up balls of grease-proof paper with a treat inside for the cat to rip open, a Yakult bottle with holes cut in the side for the cat to bat around and get treats to fall out, an egg box with treats in each section for your cat to fish out with its paw… the list is endless.

2) Consider the length of interactive play sessions – sessions should stop whilst the cat is enjoying it and after a successful catch. If you have a cat who becomes frustrated at the end of a play session, end the play with a couple of treats or an independent activity feeder. For some cats, a couple of seconds will be enough to start with – capture that interest and end the play session. For other motivated players, sessions can be 10-15 minutes.

3) Time your play sessions right – cats are crepuscular which means they are naturally most active at dawn and dusk when their prey is typically most active. So initiate your play sessions at these times of day to optimise on your cats instincts. Scheduling twice-daily play sessions will help provide a consistent, stress-reducing slot in your cat’s routine.

4) Make the right movements – ensure you are mimicking the patterns a prey animal would make. Quick movements away from the cat are more likely to catch their eye – mice tend to not be suicidal so avoid moving the toy towards the cat. This usually has the effect of causing the cat to back off in an attempt to get the toy out of their face.

5) Keep toys out of sight until play sessions – toys left out will lose their appeal. Keep them rotated and keep scented items in a sealed bag when not in use to maintain their attraction.

If you do one thing this New Year, make sure your cat’s play routine is up to scratch for their health and happiness. If you are experiencing any problems with play-time, either between cats or towards humans, visit the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors website www.apbc.org.uk to find a member who can help. Rosie is a pet behaviourist based in Bristol and provides telephone consultations for current and prospective cat owners – www.pet-sense.co.uk