for the love of cats
Anyone who has had a cat or even watched one from a distance has probably noticed they like to play. To cats everything is a potential toy! But where does the desire to play come from? And why do cats play so hard when they do play?
The desire to play goes back to their early infancy when they develop the first hunting instincts. Though they have the instinct to hunt, they have no idea how because Momma hasn't taught them yet. But in preparation, they challenge themselves in an effort to improve their stability on their otherwise wobbly legs and their attempts to be dominant over their siblings. At this time in their lives, their eyes have opened and they see a whole new world in front of them to explore. Everything they see is something to be investigated and analyzed. Part of investigating something is to try and move it if they can and if they can, they will move it around the room. They get a lot of entertainment out of this.
If you have read some of my earlier blogs, I mentioned that cats evaluate everything they encounter by levels of danger. This can range from zero danger (it does nothing when prodded) to extreme danger (it hits them back when they prod it). Keep in mind that the dangers a kitten may face are starkly different between the kittens born in the wild and those born in a home. There are not many things that hit back in the home but in the wild there are even animals that will kill them if they make the wrong move. So, the kitten's instincts are much sharper in the wild where dangers lurk just around the next bush.
If an object does nothing when prodded, it is deemed safe and usually gets prodded again. Possibly because the kitten is not sure it prodded hard enough to get its attention the first time.
As the kitten grows, its abilities to run, jump and climb improve dramatically and they play as part of their training to improve their skill set. As they get older it is no longer just prodding things out of curiosity but becomes a game to move it in order to keep it in front of them as they run with it. This play acts to improve eye-paw coordination and speed which will be instrumental in later life when catching prey will determine if they will survive. But to improve strength, objects do not fill the bill. Objects don't fight back or resist. In order to address this aspect of their skill set, kittens take on their siblings when playing. This includes stalking, jumping on or wrestling with their siblings. And as you may guess, instinct tells us it is better the be the predator than it is to be the prey! So, in most cases, the siblings wrestle back. At this point it is a challenge to see which one is the strongest and usually ends when the loser gets up and runs away no longer interested in the battle. There's a certain gratification a kitten gets from winning this wrestling match and becoming the victor and that emphasizes the instinct to dominate.
When they are old enough (in the wild), their mother takes them out and teaches them how to hunt and they learn the taste of real meat from a captured prey. But in the home, momma can't teach them how to hunt a food dish so she is unable to teach them that aspect of being a predator. [BTW, it is for this very reason that turning a domestic cat lose in the wild (for whatever foolish reason) is doing nothing more than signing the cat's death warrant. An untrained hunter has absolutely no chance of surviving in the wild. I've heard people say "But cats are natural hunters". This is not true! They ARE natural predators but they must be TRAINED to be successful hunters. But I digress...]
Cats never forget how to play just as they never forget the comfort they get from feeling momma's tongue when she grooms them as kittens. Even as older cats, they still feel the need to continue improving their skills or to keep their skills sharp as age makes that more difficult.
The desire to play is further intensified by the design of their eyes. The cat's eye is specially designed by millions of years of evolution to be able to sense movement in very low light conditions and moving things trigger the instinct to hunt and capture which, for the well fed cat, results mostly in play. And for the wild cat, it results in survival.
For cats, play is just going through the motions of hunting without really hunting. But it's all based around the hunting instinct that they can no more change than they can change their fur color.
Finally, for us humans, it is important to spend time playing with our cats. It keeps them happy, improves our relationship with them and helps to keep them active and healthy. This is especially important with older cats who no longer can run, jump or climb. Just playing with a piece of string will get them engaged in the hunting instinct and challenge them a bit even if they can no longer chase critters around the yard or the house anymore. Even if the cat does little more than try to catch the string with its paw while laying on its tummy or rolls over on its back to try to catch the string with all four of its paws, it's activity and it helps to keep the muscles and joints working and expends energy. It may not be much, but for older cats, it's enough. And, it's important.