August 2019

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

There are a variety of cat toys on the market, including food and puzzle toys and toys that bounce, flutter, or move in a way that entices the cat to chase. The best toys for active play are string or wand toys that look like feathers or streamers or a toy dandling from a fishing pole. Even a peacock feather makes a great interactive toy due to its length. With timid cats it's best to stay away from large or noisy toys. Some cats are more attracted to things in the air while others prefer staying closer to the ground. Knowing whether your cat prefers air or ground play hunting will be an advantage, and you may have to try several different toys and rotate them frequently before you find the ones your cat likes best.

When you play with your cat try to imitate the movement of prey-this is much more interesting to your cat than continuous movements. Sometimes just a subtle movement and twitching of the toy can catch your cat's eye, and your cat will plan its attack. Avoid dangling the toy in your cats face; no prey does that.

Benefits of Interactive Play

  • Motivates sedentary cats and helps prevent obesity
  • Strengthens the bond between you and your cat
  • Can help cats become more comfortable in a new environment or with new people
  • Decreases boredom
  • Can redirect tension between companion cats
  • Maintains muscle tone and improves circulation
  • Can stimulates appetite for finicky eaters when using feed dispensers and puzzle toys

To be most effective, play at least twice daily for about 10 to 15 minutes each time. Include a morning play session before you go to work to prepare your cat for a day home alone; leave her with a variety of food and puzzle toys to engage in solitary play. The play session when you get home is extremely important for an indoor cat because she probably napped much of the day. If you're consistent in scheduling playtime, your cat will soon look forward to your arrival. Yet another play session can be scheduled before you go to bed; this helps some cats sleep calmly through the night.

When playtime is over, be sure to put all interactive toys away. In addition to the danger of strings being chewed, these toys should be reserved for your play sessions. Between sessions you can leave furry mice and other safe toys out for solo play. Don't leave out too many toys because they'll soon lose their appeal. Rotating a few helps prevent boredom, and your cat will think she's getting a new toy each time it reappears.

How to Avoid Problems

  • Never play with hands and feet.
  • Don't allow play behavior to escalate by ending play before it escalates; always reward calm and relaxed behavior.
  • Offer multiple play options such as rotating toys often, hiding food, using feed dispensing or food puzzle and interactive toys, using appropriate play toys such as wand, string, and feather toys, teaching your cat tricks with clicker training.
  • Physical punishment for play aggression is never appropriate.


  • When you want to end the play session, begin by decreasing the intensity of the activity. You don't want to abruptly end the game, leaving the cat in an excited state.
  • Don't be discouraged if during the first few sessions your cat only looks at you or half-heartedly paws at the toy.
  • Be aware that play time during early morning and evening hours corresponds with the natural rhythm of hunting behavior in felines. It is therefore important to know exactly when and how to properly play with your feline companion.
  • Your cat's age and physical condition will have to be taken into account. An elderly or out-of-shape cat will benefit more from ground hunting.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®