The Health and Play Connection
Historically, kitten games have been considered an instinctual method to “practice” for adult life issues, such as hunting. Adult pet cats that played were thought to act out these cat behaviors as a substitute for frustrated hunting activities. That seems simplistic, though, and falls short of the whole answer when you consider that many adult animals in the wild continue to play.
And if you have much trouble understanding the cat behaviors we suggest the 11 cat behaviors that help you better understand your cats.
Play does, in fact, help hone the kitten’s various skills by practicing the use of tooth and claw, chase and pounce. More than that, it teaches them how to react to the world around them. The kitten learns that patting a leaf makes it move, that biting her brother prompts a squeal and retaliation, or that she can bunny-kick a toy into submission. Play activity teaches kittens limits on what they can do, and how their actions and reactions impact the world around them. Kittens use their paws to reach out and “test” objects in play behavior to see how it feels and moves. They can learn to keep claws sheathed when playing with siblings or humans.
The play also serves as a natural body-building exercise. A kitten’s brain is almost fully mature at five weeks, but physical and motor development takes longer. Practice hones dexterity, builds physical prowess and skill, and keeps muscles toned and the mind engaged. Play is a great stress-buster for kittens and adults alike. It builds trust and reinforces social ties between individuals, and encourages loving relationships. Play can boost confidence in shy kittens, and reduce obnoxious aggression in bullies. Most importantly of all, play is fun.
When is Kitty an Adult?
Kitten breeds tend to develop at different rates, with some like Siamese-heritage maturing earlier than others. Your kitten may look quite mature by the time she’s six to nine months old. In fact, your pet won’t “officially” be an adult until her one-year birthday. Even when she looks grown up on the outside, she’s still maturing on the inside.
Sexual maturity and the ability to reproduce often arrive before physical maturity, too. Certain breeds of cats may not develop their full hair coat or true eye color until they are two years old or older.
One sign of maturity is a decline in kitten play. Some cats continue to enjoy kitten games all their life, but most don’t indulge nearly as often as adults. You can expect kitten play to peak at about three months of age, and then begin to decline. The kitten’s behavior and attitude at age nine to twelve months is a good predictor of how she will play as an adult.
Adults typically fall into two broad categories: lap-sitters and ankle-rubbers. The lap-sitters tend to like snuggling and are more sedate, quiet cats. Ankle-rubbers are energetic, playful kitties.
A one-year-old kitten is equivalent in age to a human adolescent—about 15 years. The second-year brings Kitty to her late teens or early twenties, depending on the cat. Each year thereafter is roughly equivalent to four years of a human’s age. Today, it’s not unusual for a well-cared-for kitten to live well into her late teens or even early twenties.
Social maturity develops even more slowly than physical maturity, though. Cats reach social maturity in 2 to 4 years of age. Prior to that time, the young cat may get along well with other felines in the house. At this age, though, sometimes the youngster decides to test her social standing and move up in the world, and some behavior problems and squabbles may arise.
Kittens are incredibly inventive when it comes to playing. The intensity of kitten play escalates from four weeks on, peaks between nine and fourteen weeks of age, and then slowly declines as the kitten matures. The first play your kitten indulges is self-play when she lies on her back, and plays with and bites her own feet and tail.
Technical Stuff. Play behavior can be categorized as locomotory, social, and object play. Locomotory play includes running, jumping, rolling and climbing and can be done solo, or involve two or more kittens. Social play is interactive and includes wresting and biting, pouncing play-fighting, and tag. Object play means the kitten targets an interesting object, like a grasshopper or feather.
There are different styles of play, which can vary depending on the breed. For example, Somali and Rex breeds are athletes who enjoy chase and climbing games, Siamese-heritage cats love to fetch, and Persians play quieter sedate games. Your kitten will have her own play foibles, and invent kitten games for her along the way.
For instance, Seren and I have a couple of favorite kitten games, including a combination hide-and-seek/tag game. I search for her calling, “where’s Seren?” as I go. When I get near her hiding place, she streaks out from beneath the bed (or other hidey-hole), bops me on the leg with both paws, and races away to hide again. She also uses this “hit-and-run” technique to invite me to play or pay attention to her.
WARNING! Kittens love to chase and capture objects that can be bitten. Toys are fine, but fingers and hands should be off-limits. Sure, those wiggling fingers are tempting to the baby. When she’s tiny, she may not be strong enough to hurt you. Kittens grow, though, and their teeth and claws become very sharp. It’s not fair to punish her if she plays too rough and draws blood when you’ve encouraged the habit. A cute habit in a kitten can become dangerous as she matures to adulthood, especially if she targets a child.
Wrestle and Box
Play-fighting is great fun for kittens. It burns up a great deal of energy and also teaches the babies how to safely inhibit their bite and claws. During play, kittens take turns being the under-dog kitten. They’ll grapple each other, roll around on the floor, and bunny-kick each other for all their worth. They rear up on their hind legs and use their paws to box each other or to capture each other’s tails. When the kitten play-bites the back of another kitten’s neck, she’s practicing the killing bite that adult cats use to dispatch prey.
Your kitten may turn into a fountain of kitty-youth for your adult cat, too. Adults often enjoy playing with kittens, and an old-fogey resident cat may show new interest in play when Junior shows up. Just be sure to introduce them correctly, so that the play-fighting remains play, and doesn’t turn into a war.
Social play won’t be as common between adult cats. Unless they know each other very well, the play can easily escalate into a real fight. Cats who know each other are able to communicate their intention to play and know it only pretends and not real aggression.
Tag and Chase Game
A favorite kitten game is anything that involves racing around. Kittens will even pretend that something big and scary is chasing them, and dash around the room or up the cat tree. When they play tag and chase with each other, kittens often take turns being “it.” As soon as the pursuer catches up with the target-kitten, they may wrestle a bit before switching roles.
Kittens and many adult cats indulge in what owners often call “the five o’clock crazies” or “zooming.” Cats evolved to hunt in bursts of activity. When they are home alone all day, pent-up energy often becomes more than they can control. By the time you return home after an absence of several hours, it won’t take much to trigger a burst of extravagant play.
Often, the kitten “zooms” around, racing up and downstairs and running laps around the house.
Kitten Play: Mouse Pounce
Object play often is carried into adulthood. Kittens enjoy pawing, stalking, biting, and capturing objects. Bugs like crickets and butterflies are fair for kitten games, but kittens even treat rolling pencils and stuffed toys as though they are alive. Kittens may even play with “objects” that are invisible to us.
The pounce requires leaping skills, so kittens often practice jumping until they look like furry balls bouncing around the room. They prepare for pouncing by hiding in some hidey-hole, then leaping out on the unsuspecting victim.
Stalking precedes the pounce. The kitten crouches low to the ground and creeps forward one paw-step at a time. When she’s ready to make her move and pounce, she may signal the action by treading back and forth on her hind legs—it’s almost as if she’s revving her engines! She springs forward, and her front paws land smack-dab on top of the target, be that a feather or mouse, or your ankles.
Fish Scoop Game
Kittens use their paws not only to pat-test objects but like little hands to scoop up objects during play. This technique must have been developed eons ago when cats discovered tasty fish and figured out a way to get them out of that obnoxious wet stuff.
Kittens (and adult cats) seem fascinated by holes. They love to peer into these hiding places and stick their paws inside to feel around, and perhaps scoop out a prize.
You can tempt your kitten into kitten games by intriguing her with objects that “disappear” before her eyes. Drop a wad of paper or foil into an empty tissue box, and watch her try to fish it out. My cat Seren often carries one of her sparkly fuzzy toys and drops it inside a shoe, then has great fun fishing it out.
Another favorite kitten game Seren still enjoys is the “disappearing ribbon.” Hide one end of the ribbon, yarn, or even a long feather beneath a pillow or other object, then slowly draw the toy out of sight. As it disappears, your kitten is likely to pounce on the end, and fish underneath the pillow to try and capture the elusive prey.
Kitten Ballet Game
Kittens learn to invite others to play with exaggerated body language. For instance, they may roll about on the floor, presenting their tummy (and four paws full of claws!) to invite a wrestling match. They also often will rise up high on their tippy-toes, and shuffle sideways to dance around other kittens.
That, of course, is a defensive posture used by adult cats. When Kitty pretends to be fearful or fearsome, she over-acts. Kittens that get very excited may self-inflate their fur, like the scared Halloween cat. You’ll know the difference between play and real-life by paying attention to the situation, and vocalizations. When hisses and growls erupt, playtime is over. Other kittens and cats recognize these signals as mock-aggression and react accordingly and join in the kitten games.
Besides the sideways sidle, kitten ballet includes graceful (and not-so-graceful) vertical leaps, as in this picture (courtesy of Ralston Purina). The kitten may jump straight up in the air, spin and pirouette, chase her tail, and finish with an acrobatic dash up the drapes.
Ties That Bind – Play as a Bonding and Training Tool
Kittens look on humans as surrogate parents. To your kitten, you are the Mom-cat figure because all the food, attention, and fun stuff come directly from you. It’s up to you to provide guidance, promote good behaviors, and improve or correct negative habits before they become problems. Playing with your kitten can be a powerful bonding and training tool.
Make a point to play with your kitten for at least twenty minutes, twice a day. Longer and more frequent play periods are even better. This helps exercise her body so she wears out and is less likely to find trouble. It also engages her kitty brain—create puzzles for her to solve, to keep her interested. For instance, show her a treat, and hide it beneath a scarf, then encourage her to find it.
Playing such kitten games increases the bond your kitten feels with you. When Kitty is shy, it can build her confidence and help her become a more even-tempered pet. A stuffed toy she can bite and bunny-kick, or a ribbon toy she can chase and capture—what a brave kitten!—offer positive results. These kitten games are self-rewarding. She wins and has fun at the same time. When dealing with a very shy kitten like a feral baby that fears to get close to people, you can still interact from a distance with a fishing-pole-style toy. That lets her know that proximity to people can be pleasant and rewarding.
For rambunctious kittens and those who have developed poor bite and claw habits, play can teach them to temper these behaviors. It also gives them a “legal” outlet to go crazy and be wild kitties. Play is a particularly effective training tool that can be used as a reward for good behavior, or a lure to prompt Kitty to do the right thing. Remember, the best way to alter an unacceptable behavior is to offer your kitten a better alternative. Taking away the poor target—your fingers, for example—leaves a void that Kitty will fill with something else that’s potentially just as objectionable—like your ankles. Kittens love to bite and claw, so give her a toy that allows her to indulge in this normal kitten behavior.
Five Unique Kitty Abilities
Kittens display a wide range of extraordinary physical prowess during their play. It can be exhausting just to watch them. We marvel at their flexibility, speed, and balance sense. Here’s how they do what they do.
Pretzel Kitten Game
Cats and kittens have incredibly elastic bodies because their spines are held together with muscles instead of ligaments, as in people. Your kitten also has five more vertebrae in her back than you do. The combination of muscles and extra bones allows Kitty to pretzel her body up to 180 degrees.
Tree-Huggers Kitten Game
The kitten’s shoulder blades are on her side, not on her back like ours. She also has a unique shoulder joint attached to the chest by muscles, not by the collarbone. That’s why Kitty can turn her forelegs in nearly any direction. That not only gives her a longer stride when running but offers the ability to grab around trees and climb them. Her claws give her a great advantage to hang on and scramble upwards. Kittens that climb too high may cry for you to rescue them because they don’t want to back down the tree. Claws curve the wrong direction to make face-first descents easy.
Fast Track Kitten Game
Adult cats can run up to 30 miles per hour. Kitty’s tail acts as a counterbalance and helps her make quick turns at high speeds. Cats can run up trees as fast as they race on the ground. Teach your kitten to come when called—now—because when she grows up, there will be no catching her!
Leapin’ Kitten Game
Cats are able to jump five times their height from a standing position. They come down in stages, though, by “walking” or jumping halfway down the tree or refrigerator, and then pushing off to leap to the floor.
Uncanny Balance Kitten Game
The kitten’s balance equipment is found deep inside her ears in an organ called the vestibular apparatus. Her flexibility, vision, and motion control combine with this balance sense to allow the cat to fall on her feet. She uses a series of spine, shoulder and flank contractions to twist in midair and land kitty-correct.
WARNING! Falls from a short distance–such as from the arms of a child—may not allow enough time for the righting mechanism to work. Kittens often sustain dangerous injuries from falls when they aren’t able to land correctly, or the distance is so great they’re hurt.
Technical Stuff. Inside the cat’s ears are three small fluid-filled structures called the utricle, saccule, and semicircular canals. They are lined with microscopic hairs, and the utricle and saccule contain chalk-like substances that float in the liquid. Each time the kitten moves her head, the fluid and the chalk move against the sensitive hairs and tells the brain about the body position and speed of movement.