Does Playtime for Cats Reduce Behaviour Problems?

Does few toys and no play equal issues with your cat?

A beautiful Siamese cat plays with a toy - and playtime reduces behaviour problems in cats
Photo: Xseon/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

A new survey of cat owners by Beth Strickler and Elizabeth Shull investigates how many toys the average cat has, how often their owner plays with them, and whether there is a link with behaviour problems.

Since behaviour problems are a common reason for cats to be surrendered to shelters and so many cats are euthanized every year, it’s important to understand how meeting the behavioural needs of cats can lead to fewer behaviour problems.

Providing toys and opportunities for play is one of the fivepillars of a healthy environment for cats, according to the International Society of Feline Medicine and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (Ellis et al 2013).

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Play should allow the cat to mimic different aspects of predation. Toys and play are especially important as enrichment for indoor cats. Of the cats in this study, 61% were indoors-only cats who never go outside. The remainder of the cats spent some time indoors and some outdoors.

Each cat had seven toys on average. The most common toy was furry mice, owned by 64% of cats. The other most common toys were catnip toys, balls with bells, stuffed toys, a scratching post, boxes, and balls without bells.

Most of these toys provide opportunities for play and hunting, while the catnip, bells and scratching posts provide sensory stimulation (read more about the best scratching posts from a cat's perspective!). Boxes provide opportunities to explore the environment and we all know that cats love boxes!

Very few cats had some kind of food toy. Only 1% of the cats had a puzzle toy and 0.5% of owners hid food for their cat to find. This is unfortunate because finding food is an important aspect of the predation sequence and yet most cats are fed at set times of the day in a set location. 

One easy solution is to put part of the cat’s food in cup-cake holders and hide it for them to find. Treats can be hidden instead of just given, and kibble can be scattered or thrown. There are also many food puzzle toys for cats on the market that can keep cats occupied for some time.

Play with cats reduces behaviour problems, and boxes make good enrichment - like this sleepy cat that doesn't quite fit in a box
Photo: Nataliva Kuznetxova

Although some owners only played with their cat once a month, 64% reported playing with their cat twice a day and 17% reported daily play sessions. This is very positive.

Typical durations of play sessions were 5 minutes (33% of owners) or 10 minutes (25%). This is something that could be improved as most cats would probably prefer longer play times.

The majority of owners (78%) had the cat’s toys available all the time. However the authors point out cats can easily become bored; putting some toys away and changing the available items on a regular basis would be more interesting for the cats.

The authors say, “Rotation of toys, provision of novel items, and increasing play bouts duration to 15-30 minutes should be recommended to cat owners to increase the enrichment value of toys and play.”

In a multi-cat household, it’s important that enrichment items are provided in different locations to ensure that every cat has access (Ellis et al 2013).

Even though the cats were selected because they went to the vet for a reason other than behaviour, in fact 61% of the cats were said to have one of six common behaviour problems. Only 54% of owners had mentioned the problem to their vet.

This suggests many owners do not realize that vets can provide advice on behavioural issues, although it may also be they did not feel the need to do anything about it. Vets could explicitly ask cat owners about behaviour problems to make sure they are not missed.

The two most common behaviour problems were aggression towards the owner (36%) and inappropriate urination (24%). It is especially concerning if inappropriate urination is not mentioned to the vet as there are potential veterinary causes and many options for treatment and management. More problems were reported in male cats, particularly inappropriate urination, and male cats also spent more time outdoors.

The number of toys the cat had and how often the owner played with them were not related to behaviour problems. However, fewer problems were reported by owners who played with their cat for at least 5 minutes at a time compared to those who only played for 1 minute.

The authors say, “It may be that longer play bouts satisfy the cat’s play needs and decrease behaviour problems.” However they point out that since the data is correlational and does not prove causation, further research is needed.

277 cats took part in the survey. Their owners were recruited after taking the cat to the vet for a problem other than behaviour. The average age of the cats was 5, but ranged from 6-week old kittens to 18 years old. The average number of cats per household was 2 and there were equal numbers of male and female cats. 81% were neutered. 

This is a valuable study that makes useful recommendations. All the owners provided cat toys and opportunities for play. Feline enrichment could be improved by providing a wider variety of play types including food hiding/puzzle toys, and by increasing the length of play sessions.

The beautiful thing is that a cat toy can be as simple as a cardboard box, a piece of string, or a treat hidden in a tube.

How many toys does your cat have and which is their favourite?

You might also like: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and your cat would like food puzzle toys

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Ellis, S., Rodan, I., Carney, H., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L., Sundahl, E., & Westropp, J. (2013). AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15 (3), 219-230 DOI: 10.1177/1098612X13477537  
Strickler, B., & Shull, E. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.005

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  1. Very interesting article....a good read!

  2. I used to volunteer with a local no-kill shelter, working as a behavioral therapist. My job was to help cats who came in with inappropriate behavior--usually aggression--so they could become adoptable. My favorite "tools" were Da Bird and the Galkey Kitty Tease. They were also the cats' favorites--ALL of the cats, not just those with quirky natures! :-)

  3. Got to love this validation. One of the first things I recommend for just about any of my clients with any behavioral problem is to add 15 minutes of play time a day with a fishing rod toy in order to give the cat an outlet for the stress. It's like having a first-aid kit for problem behaviour - from there on out, you can figure out what is at the root of the problem while you manage the symptoms.

  4. I have a four month old kitten, so we play well over an hour a day, broken into increments in morning, late afternoon and evening as I work parttime. She loves a ball I crumpled from aluminum foil. I made it big enough so it's not always rolling under furniture and it's light enough for her to carry around. She loves her crinkle tunnel, scratching post. A plastic bag is great - she loves jumping up for it as I toss it in the air and it floats and of course a laser toy. I leave some food different areas throughout the house. She has alot of more expensive toys but loses interest. Of course, always watch for kitties who want to chew on the bags, etc. She also has a special soft toy "baby"that she likes to sleep with. Once again, always be careful if your cat likes to tear apart bags, etc. So far she does not but I put the bag away if we're not actually playing with it.


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