Cats stop playing with toys because they are frustrated and then bored but it need not always be that way with cats and toys. Cats think they are hunting when they play with toys. But it appears that cats don’t get bored when they are hunting for real so why the difference between hunting toys and hunting mice?
The reason is that toys don’t behave in a way which tells the cat that it is dying, killed and dead, ready for eating. A cat is motivated by the success of hunting. If the hunting session is completely unsuccessful he will stop. In fact when you think about it you can see this taking place in the wild with lions and cheetahs chasing prey. They stop fairly quickly if the objective of the hunt, a kill, is unlikely.
If a cat toy disintegrates when a cat plays with it the cat will continue playing. Also if a cat toy is changed the cat will renew his interest. I suppose a new toy either represents fresh prey with the possibility of success renewed or the existing prey is being successfully killed.
Of course there must always be a maximum time a cat plays with a toy and that maximum is the time a cat takes to kill its prey.
Their behaviour when hunting is governed by four “mechanisms”:
Hunger – this drives the hunting instinct. I suppose too if the cat believes that their hunger is not going to be sated during play with a toy he will lose motivation.
Appearance – toys should have the appearance, sound and smell of prey including the disintegration of the toy signifying a kill.
Size – the size of the toy affects how the cat plays with it. Cats threat large toys with more circumspection than small toys in the same way wild cats treat large and small prey differently. It seems that cats don’t learn that large toys are not in fact more dangerous.
Toy behaving as prey – this is the most important aspect of cat toys failing to entertain cats for more than several minutes. If the cat bites and claws at the toy without seeing/smelling any changes (the effort has no effect) then the cat decides it is not prey or is too difficult to subdue and stops trying.
A toy that starts to fall apart or goes away and looks different on its return is behaving like real prey during the early stages of a kill which encourages the cat to carry on.
Photo: Beatrice Murch (on Flickr)
Source: Me and Dr Bradshaw (Cat Senses)