What are the games that cats play?

There are four fundamental types of domestic cat play:

  1. Play-fighting – practice for defending against predators and subduing prey.
  2. The mouse-pounce – practice in stalking small prey animals.
  3. The bird-swat – practice in attacking escaping birds by taking flight.
  4. The fish-scoop – practice in catching fish.

You’ll see them during play either between kittens or when playing with your cat.


This type of feline play needs little explanation as it is so inherent in all forms of cat play. Kittens start play-fighting at about 3-weeks-of-age with rough and tumble with litter mates. It can become quite violent but not so violent that it harms as the recipient of a bite tells the aggressor that it is too hard and ‘please rein in the aggression’ by squealing. This is all about pulling punches, inhibited attacks as it is play and not the real thing.

At around the age of four weeks play develops into more elaborate themes: items 2-4 above in the list above.

4 fundamental types of domestic cat play
4 fundamental types of domestic cat play. Image by MikeB
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Mouse pounce

The kitten practices attacking small prey animals, typically the mouse. Play of this kind involves, as expected, hiding, crouching, stalking and slinking forward and attacking the object such as their mother’s tail which might be swishing backwards and forwards. Dragging a string across the floor stimulates this form of play.


This is mimicked when the owner uses a cat tease – a stick with a feather on the end – and flicks it over their cat’s head. It is an upward leap followed by a grab with forepaws and/or a swipe. The cat species renowned for doing this to the most impressive standard is the caracal.


This entails scooping up and throwing a static object over their head/shoulder. The cat then turns and pounces on it as if they’ve scooped a fish from a stream and killed it once on the river bank.

Best toys

The best toys are those than best replicate the real thing. Often commercially made toys are indestructibly made of plastic which makes them less than optimal.

Homemade toys such as a ball of paper may the best as they can be destroyed (killed). The toy should also be relatively light and soft. The well-known wriggling fish toy mimics a fish caught as described and is thrashing around on the river bank. It is a popular toy. It’s strength is its weakness as it can’t be destroyed. This is to be expected as no one would buy a cat toy that lasts five minutes.


Individual cats craft their own versions of these games in cooperation with their caregiver. One customisation is well-known. It is when the cat acts like a dog and plays fetch. The cat is chasing prey – a modified mouse pounce in my opinion – and brings the prey to their owner to repeat it as it is enjoyable.

There are numerous customisations. For example, the former celebrity cat, Maru, loved to dive into boxes which were open at both ends and slide along a hard floor while doing it.

This was not a customisation it seems but the invention of a fresh game by owner and cat based on the cat’s love of boxes.

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Hands should not be a cat toy! The caregiver has to know the moment when their hand transforms from their cat’s mother’s tongue to a prey animal (as perceived by their cat). The human hand can be an enjoyable experience for a domestic cat as it feels as if their feline mother is licking them (allogrooming). It can also become a toy to destroy if the cat is overstimulated.

What is the best way to extricate yourself from the “cat bite and grab” in play?

10 facts about using hands as play toys for your cat

3 thoughts on “What are the games that cats play?”

  1. There’s a lot more cat-play than that! Hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo for just two examples! Also, grabbing your arms or hands to get you to play with them

      • Once again, I disagree to some degree. Children play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek and there is no hunting connection there unless you link it to the Neanderthal period / human hunting historical periods.


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