The reason why kittens, adult domestic cats and small wild cats play

It might seem rather strange to state that this article is about the reason why domestic cats and kittens play because it looks obvious: to have fun, to enjoy themselves. There must be an element of fun in play but the primary reason why kittens play, it is believed, is to develop and reinforce behaviours that will be necessary when they become adults. It’s basically self-training to become an efficient predator when they grow up.

The reason why kittens and adult domestic cats and small wild cats play.
Developing motor skills for hunting and defending territory when adult. Image: MikeB
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The reason why adult domestic cats continue to play like kittens is because in their mind they are kittens as a result of the relationship they have with their human caregiver who provides for them in every way like a surrogate mother.

Playing entails perfecting coordination and the use of limbs, claws and teeth to handle objects. This is all practice for predation – practice of motor skills.

You see it in domestic cats and kittens but you will also see it in the small wild cat cousins of the domestic cat. For example, adult Geoffroy’s cats have been observed tossing around captured mice into the air and then pouncing on their lifeless body. And in a zoo, guignas, a small wild cat species living in South America, have been observed playing with their food. It is the same behaviour as seen in domestic cats.

I think it is fair and useful to cross-reference both domestic cats and small wild cats because they behave in the same way in this respect. Although for wild cats it is not normally the cubs who need to hone their skills not the adults. And of course, kittens and young adults sometimes play with each other in play-fighting but this, too, is a method of self-training for fighting in protecting their home range and in predation to survive.

Play is absolutely integral and instinctive to a domestic cat. It’s important that cat caregivers allow them the opportunity to express this natural instinct in the home. It’s particularly important for the full-time indoor cat obviously because they have no means to express this desire outside the home in the natural environment and even the urban environment is more natural than the indoor environment.

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