Why Do Kittens Push and Pounce on Balls?

The obvious answer is that the kitten is playing. We know that cat play is based on hunting but I think the answer to this question is bit more complicated that we think. In addition to cats pushing small objects around on flat surfaces they also throw balls into the air and then pounce on them. Another classic situation is a small object, say a pen, being pushed off a desk or table onto the floor and watched by the cat. That is all he does, push it off and watch it fall.

Cats Fishing

Catherine Davidson in her book Why Does My Cat Do That? says that kittens who throw a ball into the air over their heads and then pounce on it, are doing what a wild cat does in the wild when fishing. Many wild cats do eat fish and some will be successful in scooping a fish out of a pool with a paw. The fish is thrown onto dry land and then pounced on and killed. I see the similarity. Therefore, this may be a correct assessment. Although, I don’t think this form of domestic behavior is so particularly connected to one aspect of wild cat behavior.

Unhappy Kitten Wants Stimulation?
Unhappy Kitten Wants Stimulation? Photo by khanb1
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Kittens and cats also push balls and other small objects around. They often end up under furniture. And sometimes the kitten just watches the ball move. It seems that the ball is a disappointment as it does not do enough. If you move furniture after about 6 months you’ll see a pile of small objects underneath. Pushing objects around is not replicating wild cat behavior as far as I can tell. It is more about creating the wild cat environment. It would appear to be exclusively domestic cat behavior. Something they have learned to do to try and satisfy their innermost drives and instincts.

Creating The Wild

The simple and obvious answer is that it is just play. No more and no less. It is loosely based on hunting but it is also fun. Pushing a ball over a hard surface makes it look like prey. The kitten then might chase it. It is a cat artificially creating the hunting situation. Cats live indoors, an artificial landscape in which the domestic cats inner wild traits are hard to express. He has to recreate a bit of the wild on the hoovered carpet or polished wood floor.

What about that cat who pushes a pen or any sort of small object onto the floor from a height? He’ll watch it fall, see that nothing happens when it hits the ground and then move on. He might jump down to check it out. To me this is a cat who is looking for stimulation. If there was prey in the form of a mouse he would not push pens off desks. Because there is no prey in our home (normally!) he creates it. By pushing an object off a surface it seems that he is checking if it is alive. He is hopping the object will do something when it hits the ground. He is trying to bring it to life. The human home is full of dead, inanimate objects as far as a domestic cat is concerned. Outside, in the wild, there is more life.


What about the box the cat likes to get into? This is also grounded in wild cat behavior. I sense this is the nearest thing to den that a domestic cat can get his hands on. Wild cats find somewhere safe in the day to rest up in. This is dense undergrowth or a cave or perhaps a fallen tree. That sort of place. The cat will them come out at dusk to hunt during the night. Although many wild cats also hunt during the day. In short a large cardboard box is a den and resting place.


I agree with Catherine that all these play behaviors are grounded in hunting but there are variations and sometimes the cat is recreating an artificial hunting scenario. I sense a lot of them are indicative of a bored cat. I don’t think we (me included) understand how important stimulation is for the cat. It is said that the domestic cats brain is smaller than the wild cat’s brain. They are less intelligent. This must be to do with having a soft, served-upon lifestyle without challenge. It is fortunate for us and the cat that they are also programmed to spend a lot of time sleeping. But for that the cat might have been unsuitable for domestication.

9 thoughts on “Why Do Kittens Push and Pounce on Balls?”

  1. Marc, I’d love to be a cat in your house! You are really good about providing the stimulation they need.
    Monty will play with little twigs or leaves outside. He really gets into it. Yesterday he dug a hole in the flower bed (weed bed actually) and he was just going crazy over this hole. I thought he had a mouse or had discovered the den of a small creature, but no it was just a hole he was digging. He would pounce on the hole over and over and play with the leaves scattered around it also. Later he used that same hole as a toilet, so it served a double purpose for him. It was just odd that his behavior while playing with the hole seemed so much like prey stalking. He has done this before back there– dug a fairly sizable hole and then pounced on the hole repeatedly. Yesterday was the first time I saw him use the same hole as a potty later. I wonder what wild cat behavior he is simulating with digging holes and then stalking the hole like prey. Sometimes I think I have a very strange cat. But he’s happy, and I really don’t care if he digs back there.

      • Sadly this weekend I am busy all of saturday so to my cats it will seem like another workday – or more to the point – a short weekend. I like having the weekend to hang out with them and follow more their rythm for play. Usually they follow mine, like when I get up or when I get back from work. I don’t really have a social life, so it’s not for everyone thats for sure, but I honestly enjoy it and when I have some out of work thing to do I always feel that I am missing playtime. The 2 are still only 6 or 7 months old so maybe this will calm down a little although I dont want it to. I will be sad if they become lethargic. I doubt they will if I keep it up though. When I finally move somewhere its safe for them to go outside then I will have a bit more time for me I guess but by then I surely wont want it and I’ll get myself another couple of kittens and raise them with the freedom of the outdoors. Thats my dream and goal for now. To be able to provide the perfect upbringing for happy cats – thats what makes me happy. This xmas I am getting them (and me I suppose) 2 huge full on cat trees. I’ve found an online place to get them cheap with free delivery. I really do want to keep them stimulated as much as possible. I know that whilst I am at work all day though they must sleep some of it and probably get bored and stare out the window for the rest of it. Its not ideal, but I think they are enjoying their time at least when I am in the apartment. At first it felt like hard work and not what I felt like doing but with force of habit I wouldn’t change it for anything, in fact I am sort of addicted to it. Both they and I anticipate playtime. I love to see them run around acting like crazy kittens and Lilly joins in too – I played with her tons as a kitten, she still loves bottle caps really a lot.

        Its a good place for an indoor cat – but in of itself I feel that it is not ideal because of the indoor restriction. I will play it by ear. If they must go out then I will let them but only after trying everything I can to keep them happy, active and healthy. Lucky for them I like being at home with them and am not the type to need to go out and socialise all the time to feel good about myself. It’s the right time for me to have more than one cat basically, and to focus on their well being since it also gives me a huge amount of well being and security. Living in foreign countries is not so straight forward. You have no old friends, you have to make a few new friends. You have no familly. I have my cats and they are perfect for me. Lets hope I am for them 🙂

        • Marc, how fun! Cat trees for Christmas! It is the one thing I haven’t done for the cats. Well, Bigfoot is the only one inside full time and he has about 20 minutes a day he wants playtime. He sleeps and moves from comfy spot to comfy spot the rest of the day and night. Most active when I’m asleep of course which means waking up every hour on the hour.

          The outdoor cats have plenty cat trees. Ha! Marvin does love to play with teases when he is inside visiting. He gets so into it, his eyes dilate to the max. He does flips and clowns around so much even the dog laughs. He is a hoot.

          I hope you’ll post pictures of the new cat furniture!

          I agree with Michael. Your house sounds like the perfect cat-house.

    • Ruth, you and Monty sounds like the perfect life to me. You are a few steps ahead of me. I still have to finish renovating the place I bought and go rent a place in the woods or countryside so I can give my cats the freedom you can give Monty. He’s a lucky boy, clearly and sounds like he is just loving life which is a wonderful success and you must feel so good about the fact and happy when you see him happy. The outdoors is key and it’s the part I am working on in order to get to where you are. Red used to love digging holes, tons of them, Any small hole got made bigger. Some would double as toilets. He just loved to dig like Monty. The outdoors stimulates them to be themselves and the cats and characters that they truly are and there’s nothing more inspiring than to be a part of that, in my opinion. Its magical.

      • Thanks, Marc! I try to give Monty a happy life. I know he’d like to be outside a lot more, but we do enjoy our time together out there. I used to give him more unsupervised time, but then I learned that we do have coyotes around in the city and our fence is not coyote proof. I’ve never seen one, but I quit giving Monty early morning outside time. He goes out at times when there will be people up and about, including the neighbors’ really big dogs on either side of us– big enough to take on coyotes. To me, that’s protection for us. I dreamed last night that Monty was living at my parents’ house and had unlimited outside time in the ravine, like our childhood pets had. In my dream Monty was loving it. But some of our childhood pets didn’t live very long or ran away. Monty’s safety comes first. He does get at least a half an hour outside most days of the week. He climbs all his favorite trees and runs like the wind back there. He almost always comes in with me, I don’t have to pick him up and carry him in. I sometimes say, “Treat!” but not always. If it’s cold out he might be waiting by the door for me. I do my work out outside so he has to wait until I’m done, then we go in together. I’ve lost a few pounds, so it’s working. He begs to go out, so I always get my exercize done. He’s a good workout buddy.

  2. I play with my cats realy a lot. I have a big basket full of bouncy balls for throwing, furry mice and furry balls to throw for them to catch and lots of bottle caps to slide along the floor. We have a whole system. There is a double mattress on its side and I throw the non bouncing furry ones up to the mattress and they run up it and try to catch the balls. The bouncy balls are for throwing around the apartment and they will chase them. The bottle caps they love – they make a noise and slide along the floor really fast. Once these things stop moving they just leave them. When they catch something they put it in their mouth like a mouse, and shake their heads as if to kill it and then drop it and maybe play with it a bit. But I have one catnip mouse with fur on it which they love to no end. They will run around for hours with this thing growling and dropping it and beting it around. Its made of compressed catnip surrounded by fur. They treat this like a real dead mouse and chase eachother for it. If it gets under the couch out of reach one of them will start crying because she wants it so badly. I have had to glue it together so many times its a real mess now. I dont let her at it all the time ..I put it away but then whenever i go past the cupboard I put it in she jumps up thinking and hoping I am gonna take it out for her but I am just passing. We play these things everyday. I collect up the basket of things and throw them for the cats for about 45mins per basket load – there’s alot in the basket! And then re collect. They are starting to love the wand toy and the tunnel so we play that alot. As they get older they need me to make the things move more. Thats it basically. Now they need the wand toy – before they were fine with just projectiles. But since those stop moving the wand toy has started to alleviate the potential boredom from the things I throw. It really does seem like a hunting thing without question. Like when mama brings a half dead mouse for them to play with. Its the same. Red would play for hours with the mouse after it was dead. Ages. I will look for more of those fur covered mice made from catnip I guess. They destroyed them all almost 🙂


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