The importance of exercise – how to get your cat to do more

Exercise is important because it helps cats to keep fit, maintaining good muscle and bone strength as well as improving circulation to important organs and tissues.

Why do cats need exercise?

Ensuring cats get enough exercise also helps prevent obesity and its associated health problems, such as diabetes, cystitis, liver disease, arthritis, non-allergic skin disease and early death. Obesity in cats can also contribute towards behaviour issues. Obese or overweight cats are less able to perform normal, cat-like behaviours such as grooming, hunting, playing, using litter facilities, patrolling their territory, and even getting to a safe place to rest and relax. This can trigger obese cats to feel anxious, fearful, bored, and frustrated, making them more prone to problems such as house soiling or aggression toward owners and other animals.

Although diet plays a big part in maintaining a normal weight, exercise plays a role too, so should not be ignored. Many modern cats live either fully or partially indoors which is not a lifestyle they were designed for. Instead, cats are programmed to spend a lot of time outside, patrolling their territory and hunting every day. These activities enable cats to burn calories, keep fit and stay occupied by hunting and foraging for food each day. So, for your cat’s welfare, if they spend most of their time indoors, they need to be encouraged to play and exercise indoors too.

How can I get my cat to exercise?

Outdoor access 

Pet cats tend to live either solely indoors and rely on their owners to be let outside, or have free outdoor access, usually via a cat flap. There is no wrong or right answer to whether a cat should be let outside or not, and there are advantages and disadvantages for each of these choices. Lifestyle choices vary from one owner to the next and may be influenced by reasons such as safety, convenience, health, wildlife protection, mental wellbeing, and location. Regardless of the cats living status opportunity to exercise is important since indoor-only cats are more prone to both obesity and behavioural problems.

Outdoor enclosures

A good option for indoor-only cats to get fresh air and exercise is to provide a catio, which is a purpose-built enclosure. These types of enclosures can be designed to give extra space for cats to explore, both on the ground and vertically, using cat trees, shelves, and other furniture. Additional hiding areas can be added using boxes and plant pots with shrubs in, which gives extra security to cats living in a multi-cat household. Enclosures should be secure, sheltered, warm and easily accessible for each cat in the household and contain all of their essential resources. However, although these provide a good environment for cats, they do not replace being able to roam freely outside, so owners should still look for alternative ways of encouraging exercise.

Play 

The opportunity to hunt or engage in predatory play is important for cats, not only to keep fit physically, but also for mental stimulation. Cats that must hunt to obtain food (not fed by people) can hunt for up to twelve hours a day, with only a small amount of those hunting expeditions resulting in success. This means that cats like to engage in hunting-like behaviours, ie play, as it mimics what is normal for them as a species. Cats that are kept either partially or solely indoors are less likely to exercise than outdoor cats, spending less time hunting and patrolling a larger territory.

Regular playtimes are therefore suggested for these cats, but cats that spend a lot of time outdoors may also enjoy play too.

How can I play with my cat?

Object play (solitary) 

This occurs when a cat or kitten plays with a small ‘prey sized’ object. This could be anything from a toy or household object, such as a bottle top, scrunched up foil or ping-pong ball. Cats and kittens will perform this type of play by pouncing, batting, and chasing the object around, usually at high speed! This type of play is solitary, but it is enjoyed by kittens and most cats, and is a good way to channel predatory behaviours and provide exercise.

Cats often favour small toys for object play and may be further stimulated if the toy is made of or contains feathers or fur-like material. Catnip can also be used to trigger play, but care should be taken as some cats can become over-aroused with catnip, making playtime erratic, and potentially scaring other cats in the household. Cats also enjoys toys that make high-pitched squeaking noises (think bird or mouse noises!) or toys that crackle or crunch when manipulated. Motorized toys are also available but are not enjoyed by all cats and can be expensive. Cat wheels may be particularly beneficial for playful breeds of cats such as Bengal or Siamese, although they are large, expensive and most cats require some training for use. Cats can become easily bored of toys if they are left out 24 hours a day, so rotate toys and offer new ones regularly to help keep your cat interested.

Social play (interactive, cats) 

This type of play is more likely to occur between kittens and young cats, but older cats will practise social play if they have a good relationship and are part of the same social group. Social play looks a bit like fighting, but is different because participating cats will:

  • Take it in turns to chase each other
  • Their claws will be retracted
  • Biting does occur, but is not forceful
  • Vocalisations are less likely
  • The cats will still spend time with/near each other after play

Sometimes adult cats can become too aroused when they play fight, ending in a scuffle or actual fight. True fighting will trigger distance increasing vocalisations, ie hissing, spitting, growling and there is usually an aggressor and a victim. Fighting cats will attack, bite, and scratch each other and will avoid each other afterwards. Obvious tension or further chasing or fighting can be observed in cats that are fighting rather than playing. It may be possible to distract and/or separate two cats if they are getting too carried away with play fighting, but owners should never try to break up two fighting cats as they may become injured.

Cats that do regularly engage in social play can have extra fun if they have objects to jump on, chase each other around and hide in. Cat furniture, shelves, boxes, and tunnels are all good items to have available to encourage social play and exercise for cats that are part of the same social group.

Locomotor/ self-play (solitary) 

This type of play involves climbing, running, jumping when there is no specific target, ie toy or another cat. Adding vertical space such as cat trees with perches, cat towers and cat shelves in your house may help encourage locomotor play and exercise.

Social play (Interactive, people) 

It can be lots of fun to play with a cat, and play sessions enhance the relationship between cat and owner, as well strengthening the bond between them. Playing with cats encourages exercise and allows them to participate in much needed and necessary predatory behaviours. Cats living in a multi-cat household should be given the opportunity to play with their owners individually. Some cats will be more motived to play than others and will hog the toy, preventing more timid cats from playing.

Never use hands or feet to play with a kitten or cat, as this can encourage inappropriate play that may cause injury. This is particularly important when playing with kittens, as they can learn that this type of play is fun and will continue to play like this when they are adults, when their teeth and claws are bigger, sharper and can do some serious damage!

Wand or fishing rod toys are a fantastic way to encourage play and exercise in cats. Owners can move the toy to mimic prey, encouraging cats to stalk, chase and pounce, grab, bite and kick the toy on the end of the string. Owners can move toys slow, fast, through the air, or along the floor to get their cat’s attention and motivate it to play. These types of toys are good because most cats enjoy playing with them, but there is minimal risk of the owner being accidently bitten or scratched. For this reason, wand toys are the most appropriate type of toys for children to use when playing with cats or kittens, but playtimes should always be supervised by an adult. Toys with string attachments, such as wand toys should always be put away at the end of each play session to prevent the kitten or cat becoming entangled and injured.

Some kittens and cats like to play fetch games with their owners. This is an excellent way of helping cats to exercise more and should be encouraged where possible. Most cats like to play fetch with small, prey-sized toys, and owners can pair the toy and fetch game with a vocal cue to encourage further play.

Laser pens should be used with care as they can damage a cat’s eyes if shone directly into them. They are also a source of frustration as the cat cannot catch anything (ie the red dot) which removes the ‘reward’ side of the play. If a laser pen is used, cats should be given a treat or replacement toy at the end of the game that they can catch or eat.

Using food to encourage activity

Cats are opportunistic feeders and so will take advantage of any situation where suitable food is available. It can be beneficial to hide food when trying to promote more movement and exercise. Try hiding food in different areas of the house, or scatter food across the floor to encourage exploration and foraging.

Puzzle feeding

Puzzle feeding is a great way to feed cats as it makes them ‘work’ for their food. Because cats are designed to spending a lot of their time hunting, it can be boring for them if owners just put their food in a bowl - cats like to be challenged! Puzzle feeding is stimulating for cats, making them work mentally and physically to obtain food. It can also stop cats from gorging, preventing regurgitation and excessive weight gain. Puzzle feeding may help reduce signs of behavioural issues such as conflict between cats, house soiling, anxiety, aggression, and depression in cats.

Puzzle feeders can be home-made, or shop bought and come in a variety of different types and difficulty levels. Cats new to puzzle feeding should begin with simple ones on the easiest level. Some cats prefer puzzle feeders they can use with their nose, eg treat ball (mobile) or their paws, eg puzzle boards/slow feeders (stationary) or just their tongues, eg textured mats (stationary). Using home-made puzzle feeders to start with are a cheap and easy way to help encourage food foraging and exercise in cats.

For more information about puzzle feeding go to: http://foodpuzzlesforcats.com/

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