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Kitten Play: 4 Tips for Maximizing Feline Playtime

Did you survive spring (also known as kitten season) without bringing a new kitten into your household? I nearly cave each spring as new litters multiply at my local shelter. The amount of “cute” is nearly overwhelming, and I barely make it out before resisting their desperate “take me home!” squeaks.

I eventually suppress the urge, however, and head home to my two adult cats, who still command kitten levels of attention. (I certainly enjoyed pulling together these shots of  cat my Nina from many years ago.) If you did welcome a new kitten to your family, congratulations!

These bundles of boundless energy bring so much joy to a household and remind us just how fun a few minutes of playtime can be. It’s important to remember, however, that playtime isn’t just about fun and games for kittens; they’re drawing on their instincts as natural-born predators and learning how to hunt. With that in mind, follow these tips to maximize your kitten’s playtime and ensure you’re raising a healthy, happy, well-behaved feline.

Keep your hands to yourself: All of that running, jumping, tumbling and pouncing your kitten’s doing? It’s all in the name of capturing its prey, so don’t make your hands the “catch.” Excited kittens bite, and that’s not a good behavior to introduce to any animal in its vital learning stage.

Toys make better prey, especially those that mimic cats’ prey in the wild – mice, birds, fish, etc. Look for balls, feathers and other toys attached to long sticks (again, to keep your hands far from the action), small stuffed rodents with squeakers included (animal sounds also mimic real-life hunts) and small stuffed toys the same size as your kitten so she can wrestle and kick it with her back paws (this is how she would play with her littermates). If she does bite, pull your hands away and wait until she settles down to give her a toy; otherwise she’ll think the toy is her reward for biting you.

Act out every stage of “the hunt”: As entertaining as it is to watch your feisty fur ball dart back and forth at an endlessly frenetic pace, there’s more to her hunt than just the chase. Don’t forget to let her “stalk” her prey by dragging a toy around a corner, under a blanket or just beneath the sofa. Let your kitten slowly pursue it, and just before she captures the critter, move it again. After a few attempts of stalk, chase and pounce, let your kitty capture her prey; she has to win at some point! Let her savor the moment for a few minutes, then feed your kitty her regular meal so she connects the play hunt with actual food.

Free toys work just as well as expensive ones: Luckily, kittens don’t care about price tags, so you don’t have to go broke buying bedazzled toys. Crumpled up Whole Foods Market® receipts make perfect “soccer balls,” as do bottle caps, balled up foil and the old standby, balls of yarn. Avoid anything that kitty could swallow or get entangled in, including single pieces of string, elastic bands, plastic bags or anything with sharp edges.

While iPads and other tablets certainly aren’t low-budget, there are plenty of free or inexpensive apps meant to keep kitty’s attention, such as the aptly named “Game for Cats,” which lets your kitten chase a darting ball of light around the screen. Bonus points for not finding a million misplaced toys under your furniture! Remember to change your toys up; kittens like variety.

Create a room with a view: Domestic cats haven’t lost the urge to climb trees and view the world from above, so make sure your kitten has plenty of levels she can ascend as she grows, as well as multiple views of the outdoors. (Indoor cats live up to three times as long as outdoor cats, however, so keep that kitten inside!) Place a cat tree next to a window, or create an “observation deck” on a wide window sill. The visual stimulation is vital to your kitten’s happiness, which, in turn, makes for a healthy, well-adjusted cat.

If you have kittens or cats, I’d love to hear how you keep them entertained. Good luck with your furry ball of energy!