4 minute read

Channeling the Hunting Instinct with Safe Cat Toys

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Cats and kittens need to play, and as their servants, it is our job to provide safe cat toys for them.

What are cats doing when they are playing? Why do some cats ignore the fancy toys you buy them and instead play with a paper bag?

How do pet parents know whether a cat toy is safe and fun for their animal?

The Hunting Instinct

Our cats’ wild relatives needed to stalk and chase their prey to feed themselves and their families. 

If people allow their cats to go outdoors, most can and will hunt for food. Many times, they’ll bring “presents” of small rodents or birds they’ve caught into your home and announce their hunting success with loud meowing. They assume their job is to help feed you as you are one of their family members.

Many domestic cats get their food handed to them by humans, but they still have the instinct to stalk, pounce, and chase. 

The following are some general categories of cat toys, followed by some advice for ensuring the safety of those toys.

1. Toys That Move

Toys that move or sound like creatures are often a hit. When the toy vibrates or scoots around, or makes a squeaking or chirping sound, they often want to chase it. 

2. Toys to Chase and Fetch

Dogs aren’t the only animals that fetch. There’s no “cat park” equivalent to the off-leash dog park, but some cats enjoy fetching balls or other small toys. Others will just look at you like you’re a weirdo. Some cats go crazy for laser pointers, and others don’t seem to care for them (never shine the light in their eyes, though). When you end a game using a laser pointer, place the beam on a toy that your pet can “catch” as a reward for their hunting efforts.

3. Toys to Bat Around

One of the most interactive ways to play with your cat is to use a “cat dancer” type toy, or any kind of wand with feathers, strings, or sparkles. Some cats love to spin around and try to catch these “dingle-dangles” that activate their hunting instinct. Make sure these toys are in good shape because you wouldn’t want your cat to eat the toy or the string, which could lead to an unplanned and expensive trip to the vet’s office.

4. Places to Go

Does your cat love to jump up and look down on you from refrigerators, closet shelves, or bookshelves? Just like their big cat relatives, cats like to perch. Some enjoy cat trees, and many of these have built-in scratching posts and other bells and whistles. 

You can install a cat shelf or a window-mounted cat bed under a window so your cat can safely enjoy nature. Some people invest lots of money into cat furniture and buying or building “catios,” enclosures that allow cats to safely enjoy the outdoors. The biggest downside to catios is that because they’re open to the fresh air, they may not keep out parasites, like mosquitos, fleas, or ticks, that could infest your cat. Especially if your neighborhood has cats that run around outside.

5. Scratchers and Other Sensory Items

If you’re not around to provide your cat with scritches or pets, there are products that can help your cat get their own personal spa and massage experience. When your cat uses one of these devices, they release pheromones—the feel-good hormones. 

Cats need to scratch to keep their claws from growing too much, so check out the wide variety of scratching posts and items at your local pet store. Even declawed cats will use scratching posts.

6. Free (or Cheap) Stuff

A paper bag or cardboard box is one of the most reliable ways for cats to entertain themselves. Some cats will chase a wad of paper or a ping pong ball. If you put a bag on the floor for your cat, make sure it doesn’t have a handle (or remove them). If they get stuck with their head through the handle, it might look funny to you, but your cat may find it a terrifying experience.

Here’s a list of some unusual “toys” cats may enjoy: 

  • Round plastic shower curtain rings
  • Plastic ring from a milk container
  • Golf balls, tennis balls
  • Empty cardboard tubes from toilet paper or paper towel rolls
  • Balled-up pieces of paper

7. Puzzles and Games

Pet stores sell ball track toys where your cat can swat the ball that stays in the groove. And there are also battery-operated toys that can be started by a motion sensor or timer. 

Treat balls are fun for some cats, and if you are helping them watch their weight, these toys can make them work a little harder for their dinner.

8. Old-Fashioned Catnip

Even catnip growers are getting in on the action these days, offering powerful new strains and fun new catnip toys. You can sprinkle a bit of catnip on their other toys to encourage them to play with them. Gardeners can also plant their own catnip and offer a sprig of catnip straight out of the yard. Be sure there aren't any pesticides on the catnip before you give them anything from your garden or from others giving you a gift of fresh catnip.

Tips for Making Safe Choices

Avoid a trip to the veterinary emergency hospital with your cat. Here are some great tips that fellow veterinarian Dr. Justine Lee wrote about what she recommends for all cat toys.

  • Watch the size. If it’s too small, it can be swallowed and lead to an unplanned and expensive trip to the vet’s office. That’s why you may not find small sparkly balls at pet stores anymore. 
  • Check where it was made. Toys made in the United States or Canada are more likely to be sturdy than those made in China.
  • Get sturdy toys. Make sure that nothing will break off and get stuck in your kitty’s stomach or intestines. Watch out for string, yarn, or dangly parts. If swallowed, it can lead to an unplanned and expensive trip to the vet’s office.
  • Look for healthy, stimulating toys. Many cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Playing with cat toys helps to manage their weight while stimulating their predatory drive.

Play Together

Even though cats are not always as attention-seeking as dogs, many of them do love to snuggle, get groomed, or have the undivided attention of their humans. 

So take a look around a pet store, or your own home, and see if you can cook up a fun play activity for your cat.

Download the Pet Parent's Guide to Caring for Your Dog or Cat