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Importance of play therapy

The Cure for Playful Aggression and Boredom

We can take the cat out of the jungle, but we can't take the jungle out of the cat. There is a little tiger in every house cat, a solitary predator that needs to exercise his or her hunting skills on a regular basis. We may have confined this little tiger within four walls, provided it with the finest of feline foods, but we can't ignore basic needs to do what they are so perfectly designed to do, hunt. Fortunately, it is not necessary for the prey to be alive, but it must move.

Playfully aggressive cats and kittens often frighten guardians because they look quite dangerous. They silently ambush feet and ankles as they pass by, surprising, upsetting and sometimes even hurting the victim. In some cases, the guardians have inadvertently rewarded their cats by playing with them as a kitten using their hands or feet. When the companion animal is bigger and stronger, those playful pounces and bites puncture the skin. The solution is to direct the cat's playful, predatory energies toward toys instead of body parts.

The easiest solution may be to get another cat or kitten of the same sex* and approximately the same age and activity level as a playmate for your companion. Although you will now have two mouths to feed, the wear and tear on you and your home will be greatly reduced or eliminated. If getting another cat is not possible, then it will be your responsibility to provide your feisty feline with scheduled sessions of controlled aerobic exercise.

Interactive Play

Schedule two or three (more, if necessary) interactive play sessions a day for times when your cat is most rambunctious. (Cats love routine, so try not to deviate from these times.) Depending on how athletic your cat is, the sessions may last 10-20 minutes each. A fishing pole-type toy enables the guardian to be stationary while controlling the cat's activity level with a wave of the arm. (Some of the best commercially sold toys for this purpose are the I.C.A.T.S.™ Feline Flyer Wand, Jackson Galaxy™ Wand Cat Toy, and the Cat Charmer.) The play sessions should not stop until the cat is exhausted, lying on his side and batting at the toy because he is too tired to chase after it.

During the session, make the toy move as would prey; a little mouse or bird. Don't dangle it in the cat's face. It should hide behind objects in the house and occasionally jump into the air. Build up your cat's confidence and enthusiasm by allowing plenty of "captures." Fishing pole toys should be carefully stored out of the cat's reach after the play session as your cat may continue to hunt for it long after you have left the room.

Solo Play

There are times when your cat may want to play when you are not available. In these cases, it is important to have a variety of safe, interesting toys to keep your cat occupied. Be sure that the toys do not have parts that can be torn off and swallowed or long strings in which your cat can become entangled. The Peek a Prize Toy Box, made by SmartCat  is a safe, durable toy that keeps cats mentally stimulated. Just like people, cats can get bored with the same toys, so be sure to rotate the toys available every few days to maintain interest.

As kittens mature, the play patterns of male and females diverge. The rough-and-tumble, pounce-and-play sequence of male play behavior may not be appreciated by the female when she is older and may be greeted with hiss-and-spit.

The Little Monster Still Attacks You Playfully...

First of all, playful attacks are not accompanied by vocalizations, hissing and growling. A natural reaction to being grabbed or bitten, even playfully, is to swat at the cat. Don't do this! Physical punishment may cause your cat either to fear you or to engage in even rougher play. If your cat becomes afraid of you, you may face a bigger problem, defensive aggression. If the attack can be anticipated, a squirt from a water gun, the noise of an audible alarm or a shaker can (an empty soda can with pennies in it) may discourage the behavior, if produced at the moment of the attack. Timing is everything. If "fired" a second or two after the incident, the deterrent will not be connected with the attack in the cat's mind and no training will take place, although the cat may be frightened and confused.

Perhaps the best deterrent is the one that is always at hand, one's voice. A loud and shrill "Eek," followed by a sharp "No!" can be very effective with some cats. The next step is to shun the cat for the next ten minutes. This means paying absolutely no attention to the cat. Don't lecture or scold the cat and don't pick him or her up to put them in a separate room. Any attention at this point can be reinforcing, so totally ignore the cat. This is precisely the way a kitten learns to inhibit his biting when playing with another kitten. If one becomes a little too rough, the victim will squeal and run away. The aggressor will watch his playmate run away and wonder what happened. Eventually he learns that if he wants to extend the play session (which he always wants to do), then he will have to be more gentle.

This training method works well--if you are patient and consistent.

If you would like to work with a Wisconsin Humane Society behaviorist one-on-one regarding this behavior topic, please call 414-431-6173 or email to schedule a consultation.