How to entertain a cat – stimulate their hunting instincts

“How to entertain a cat?” is a question that we wouldn’t need to ask in a better world for domestic cats as they don’t need entertaining normally. They only need entertaining when then can’t entertain themselves. And cats entertain themselves through their natural behavior of hunting and stalking. If we take that prospect away from them by for example locking them permanently indoors, we are then, as the major provider and senior partner, obliged to find a substitute and that means play-hunting.

I am not saying that it is wrong to lock cats indoors permanently. I am actually very positive about keeping domestic cats indoors full-time both for their safety and to protect wildlife. But it does put an added responsibility onto the shoulders of their caregivers which is, yes, to entertain them. And it is sad that we have created a world that is dangerous to an outdoors cat.

Cats like to destroy toys
Cats like to destroy toys. This cat destroyed this Lego cartoon character. It was not intended to be a cat toy but this ginger tabby was happy to destroy it and therefore entertained himself. Regrettably the owner was not so enjoyably entertained!
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Ideal cat toy for maximum entertainment

One problem with cat toys, it is argued by Dr. Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense, is that a domestic cat is unable to kill a cat toy and eat it. Because they can never come to a conclusion in their stalking, attack and killing of the toy they become bored with it. And I am sure that many cat owners would agree that some very expensive cat toys might entertain a cat for a short time but after that, like toys for babies, they end up in the attic in a brown cardboard box. If Dr. Bradshaw is correct, and I think he is, cat toys should be made of a material which can be broken up leaving it destroyed and ideally the material should be edible as well. I know of no such toy on the market. I think this well-known cat behaviourist and scientist has made a very good point about entertaining domestic cats.

The conclusion (see reasoning below) by Bradshaw is that domestic cats will be entertained for longer if they play (1) when they are hungry and (2) if the toy is of the right appearance and smell and sound which replicates a genuine prey animal and (3) when the toy is of a size which does not represent a danger to a cat such as a mouse and (4) the toy disintegrates when clawed and bitten “which mimics the early stages of a kill, thus encouraging the cat to persist”.

Man invites his Bengal cat to use his hand as a play toy
Man invites his Bengal cat to use his hand as a play toy. Stupid. Screenshot.

RELATED: 10 facts about using hands as play toys for your cat

Study which decided the ideal cat toy

Dr. Bradshaw says that cats are ‘renowned for quickly getting bored with toys’, to use his words. He was intrigued by this and conducted a study in 1992 at the University of Southampton, UK. He wanted to look into the motivation of cats when deciding to play with a toy. Do they play for the fun of it or are they simply attacking it instinctively?

The way they play with toys is “highly reminiscent of the way that they attack prey”. They found that “habituation is the main underlying reason for this apparent boredom”. When presented with a fake mouse they “usually played intensely, appearing to treat the toy as if it was indeed a mouse”. He found they stop playing within a matter of a couple of minutes. When they presented the mouse to the cat again, they played again but less intensely and for a shorter period of time. At the third presentation of the toy most of the cats in the study would barely begin to play. They were clearly bored. When they change the colour of the toy, they played again; so, they were bored with the toy not the game. They even attacked the second toy more vigorously than the first if there was a five-minute gap between playing.

They concluded that cats “like mouse-sized toys that are furry, feathered or multi-legged toy spiders, for example”. Their brains are hardwired to chase these sorts of prey animals. They decided that the cats participating in the study “were apparently thinking of their toys as if they were real animals, and as if their size, texture, and any other simulated movement had triggered hunting instincts”.

To support the argument that cats play as a direct substitute for hunting rather than to entertain themselves, they found that hungry cats in Dr. Bradshaw’s study “played more intensely than usual with a mouse -sized toy. For example, biting it more frequently. Moreover, many of the cats that normally refuse to play with a rat -sized toy at all were now prepared to attack it”.

Dr. Bradshaw concluded firmly that “adult cats do think that they are hunting when they’re playing with toys”.

Why cats get bored with toys
Cat toy is dying. Image in public domain.

Other cat toys – allocating playtime

‘Cat entertainment’ substitutes hunting and stalking at a fundamental level. On that basis…How to entertain a cat, then? Well, with play as a hunting substitute most often and there are many ways to do that. It is possible to enjoy play with no toys or homemade cat toys but there is a plethora of commercially manufactured cat toys one of them being Undercover Mouse which is available on Amazon and which is quite popular.

I am not suggesting that this cat toy is the bees knees. It is just one example of many but it does not really fit the profile suggested by Bradshaw. This video has been on the Internet for about nine years and received about a quarter of a million views which indicates that this toy is not stunningly attractive to purchasers. In my general impression, the best kind of cat toys are the simple ones and they stimulate the cat’s prey drive as well as any other toy.

I have a page on home-made cat toys. Frankly, a piece of string or a ball made out of paper are as good as anything else, possibly better. The key to entertaining your cat is to allocate sufficient time throughout the day to do it. This is the challenge. It isn’t only about the quality of the toy or whether you are purchasing a fancy cat toy from Amazon on or making one yourself, it’s about how much input the human caregiver allocates to cat playtime.

And in general, the average cat owner does not allocate enough time to this task. And I am one of those people. Although nowadays I let my cat roam freely which is against my wishes but he escaped a customised and expensive cat confinement fence around my backyard. Therefore, he entertains himself by hunting and chasing prey animals and generally investigating his home range.

This carries dangers but what he does is the ideal way for a cat to entertain themselves. Pretty well nothing that a human can do is able to substitute this. That might sound negative but I believe it to be true.

This device in the video needs 3 AA batteries and has a variable speed (for the mouse!). I more or less know (I have become more cynical about this sort of motorized cat toy) that it will be used for a while (maybe) and then the cats will get a bit bored (probably) and then it will have to be put somewhere when not in use (or abandoned by the cats) and then my girl cat might be frightened of it (some cats actually don’t like motorized cat toys because of the noise). You know, there are some obstacles to buying one of these. Has anyone bought something like this and did it work?

Here is a link to another post on making homemade cat toys and building a cat tree (is it worth it?). Oh, I almost forgot, how about a remote controlled cat toy that entertains us at the same time?

There is another so-called award-winning cat toy that is sure to entertain a cat at least for a while that has an unpronounceable name, Fling-ama-String, it is an ideal Christmas present.

Catnip

Many cat toys contain catnip which excites the majority of domestic cats. It entertains them but it is a sort of drug and I would argue that it is a kind of false entertainment. It is a mind-altering drug. It is a bit of a copout. Manufacturers put catnip in cat toys to excite them and make the toy look as if it is successful.

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