How much exercise do cats need? More than they normally get is the answer to the question in the title judging by the obesity epidemic. Veterinarians do not provide guidelines to the general public on how much exercise domestic cats need. And how do you give your cat exercise? The second question is much easier because almost the only way it can be done is to play with your cat. I would recommend about three times per day for about five minutes each time.
But the more the better so my thoughts are really the minimum amount of play. However, I am referring to cats that are kept inside. Cats allowed to go outside will automatically enjoy exercise through walking, hunting and climbing. Cats inside can get play time with other cats. A reason to have two but they have to get on.
Go back to basics for the answer
Perhaps the best way to answer the question as to go back to basics. In fact it’s always the best way to answer questions about domestic cats. You find out what the wild cat ancestor of the domestic cat would do and that provides the answer. So what does the African-Asian wildcat (North African wildcat) do to exercise?
Well, they have home ranges (the space they consider their territory) up to 12.7 km² (square kilometers). Adult female ranges might measure around 2 km². So a male African wildcat would occupy a home range about the size a piece of the landscape measuring 3 km x 3 km making 9 km². He would patrol this area a lot. I would guess therefore that he would walk around 5 km per day. That’s exercise. It’s the kind of exercise that doctors prescribe for people in order for them to feel better and be physically better.
It doesn’t have to be particularly demanding exercise. But the body needs to be worked as does the mind. Both the human and feline mind need to be challenged in order to keep them in good condition. Hunting for the cat keeps the mind in good order. They have to be indoor/outdoor cats to do this. For full-time indoor cats hunting means play-hunting and that can only take place with the involvement of their human caretaker. Although there are some toys which simulate hunting but I believe that they get bored with these quite quickly.
Older cats, obesity and diabetes
Clearly, how much exercise that a cat needs depends upon their age. For older cats exercise is good to help avoid arthritis. It’s been said very often that domestic cats in America, and no doubt in other countries, have been getting fatter over the years. About 60% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. Clearly, they are not getting enough exercise. Feeding them less combined with exercise would help them to get over sugar diabetes. There is a epidemic, of sorts, of feline diabetes in the US as well.
We know that a way to “cure” diabetes in people is to lose some weight. The way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. You ingest less calories and you burn more calories. That equates to losing weight. Another reason why exercise is very good for fat cats.
On the emotional level, a lack of challenge, normally through hunting, can result in a cat becoming very bored which can lead to mental health issues although little is known about mental health issues in domestic cats. However, this does not stop some vets prescribing anti-depressants for depressed cats. But cats clearly become bored and we know that when people become bored they can drift into mental health issues. I’m convinced that the same applies to cats. It can be seen in disruptive behaviour like hyperactivity at night or in wanted aggression sometimes. You can see boredom in a cat’s general demeanour and facial expression.
Simulating hunting when feeding
There’s been a lot of discussion and thought gone into how to simulate hunting for the indoor cat whose fed diligently by their owner. You can place dry cat food pellets in plastic balls in which there are holes so if the cat plays with the ball the dry food pellets fall out to be eaten. It depends on the individual cat whether they want to play with these toys. Not every cat does. I have a visiting cat who comes at night and she likes to play with Gabriel’s play-hunting plastic ball. He has no inclination whatsoever to play with it himself.
For a cat that is obese and inactive an adjustment towards exercise and diet should be carried out gently and progressively. That’s common sense and it may also be wise to discuss the new lifestyle with your veterinarian.