Kitten Play

By Marilyn Krieger

Birman KittenHow can anyone resist a sweet, innocent kitten? Those sweet little innocent balls of fur often hide a surprisingly mischievous side. Some new cat parents find they aren't prepared when these little angels become little furry balls of unstoppable energy who hang from chandeliers, bounce off of walls and pounce on anything that moves.

So what is a new kitten-parent to do? Why do kittens need to play with such ferocity and intensity?

Play is essential for learning life skills. Through play, kittens develop important social skills, learn the art of hunting and they improve and hone their motor skills. Play also provides essential mental and physical stimulation. And let's face it, playing is just fun. Sometimes no excuse is needed for a rambunctious play session.

The urge to play starts between the ages of 3-4 weeks. This play urge is especially intense until kittens are at least one year old; some cats play continually with high intensity until they are two years old. Most cats play throughout their lives, though not with the intensity or frequency as when they were kittens.

The 3 main types of play are: social, predatory and sexual play. Social play helps cats learn limits and boundaries. Through social play cats learn how intense they can play without hurting their playmates. Kittens communicate to each other through vocalizations and body language when their playmate is playing too rough. Social play also helps develop important fighting skills, necessary for survival. Better to practice with a sibling then learn in the real world where the stakes are higher.

Predatory play is very important for teaching kittens essential hunting skills. This type of play is typified by kittens stalking, lying in wait and pouncing. In the wild, kitten moms often bring small prey animals back to their kittens to help them develop essential hunting skills.

Young, unaltered males start displaying sexual play when they are usually between 4-5 months old. They will jump and pin down their female litter mates, grabbing and holding them on the nape of their necks. Neutering usually puts a stop to sexual play.

The easiest way to properly direct that intense play energy is to provide kittens with playmates. Many behaviorists, breeders and cat rescuers recommend that kittens are adopted in pairs, that way they have buddies they can play with to their little heart's content. Instead of incessantly demanding playtime from their human playmates, they can focus that boundless energy on their buddies. Of course, that isn't always possible and most people love to play with kittens.

The Rules of Play Engagement There are some basic rules of engagement that should be followed when playing with kittens. If they are ignored, kittens can develop aggression challenges which could have been avoided.

• Always use toys when playing with a kitten. Never use hands. Using hands when playing with kittens typically results in kittens not understanding boundaries. From the kitten's view point, she doesn't understand why she's sometimes encouraged to bite and grab hands and other times hands and other body parts are off limits.
• Don't play with kittens under the sheets. Playing under sheets and bed clothes leads to kittens and cats attacking their favorite people in the middle of the night while they sleep.
• Don't use laser pointers. It may seem to us humans that kittens and cats love chasing them. In reality, chasing laser pointers is frustrating and fruitless. They are trying their very best to capture that dot that can never be captured or killed. Similar to real-life hunting situations, in play, kittens and cats need to have the satisfaction of capturing their prey at least some of the time. Never being able to catch that elusive dot leaves them frustrated and full of adrenalin and may result in play aggression challenges.
• Don't insist on playing. If your kitten needs to catch a few extra winks, let her. Be happy for the down time. Engage her in play when she's ready to play.

The best way to play is using a technique that imitates the hunt and satisfies predatory play. Start by using a fishing pole type of toy. These types of toys should only be left within kitten reach when you are around to supervise. Cats can accidentally hurt themselves by wrapping the string around themselves or ingesting the toy. Pretend that the toy on the end of the fishing pole is prey that is trying to escape from a predator. Drag the toy at the end of the fishing pole in a way that encourages the kitten to pounce, stalk and attack the toy as if it's prey. If your kitten is inspired by flying prey, launch your toy into the air. Also encourage your kitten to expend energy and exercise by climbing and jumping on different surfaces when she chases the toy. Pulling the toy under objects, on top of boxes and inside bags can also inspire kittens.

When you are ready to stop playing, don't just cease playing. Instead, continue to imitate the hunt by slowing the movements of the prey-toy down. Pretend that the prey-toy has fallen victim a few times to it's attacker or perhaps it's tired from the lively chase. Slow the toy down for a few minutes and then finally let the kitten catch the toy one last time. After the kitten makes her last catch for the play session, immediately feed her something she adores. She will eat, groom and go to sleep*.

Kittens need multiple play sessions every day. The most intense sessions should be in the mornings and in the evenings since those are the times that cats are the most active.

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* This play technique was developed by Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant.

© May 2010 by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC All Rights reserved Marilyn is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants

Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant known as The Cat Coach, is an internationally recognized and veterinarian-referred cat behavior specialist, offering both on-site and telephone consultation sessions. Marilyn helps resolve cat behavior issues using a combination of positive methods, including behavior modification, training, management and education. One of her goals is to educate people about cats and cat behavior in order to prevent cats from being surrendered to shelters and euthanized because of resolvable behavior challenges.

Marilyn owns The Cat Coach, LLC a cat-behavior consulting business and is a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), where she co-chairs the Cat Division.

Her book Cat Fancy's Naughty No More! Change Unwanted Behaviors through Positive Reinforcement, released in January 2011, focuses on changing troublesome cat behavior through a combination of clicker training, management, education and other positive reinforcement methods,

In addition to consulting and writing, Marilyn teaches classes and lectures nationally on cat behavior. She utilizes her expertise as a cat behaviorist to answer cat-behavior calls on the Animal Behavior Help Line at the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, Calif. She frequently guests on television and radio programs, providing valuable tips and insight on how to improve cat behavior. Recently, she was featured with her cats on Animal Planet's Cats 101, showcasing clicker training and talking about cat behavior.

For more information about Marilyn and her cat-consulting services, please check out

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