Not sure how to play with a kitten? We're here to help. Kittens are such indefatigable bundles of energy that they can happily entertain themselves for ages, tearing around your home, pouncing on anything that takes their fancy and climbing up anything they can get their little claws into.
However, if you want them to grow up into well-adjusted cats, it's important that you set aside some time every day to actively play with them. If you're new to cat ownership you might be worried about how to play with a kitten safely, or unsure about what sort of toys and games are best for them.
So here's where you can find out everything you need to know about making playtime a rewarding and enriching time for your new kitten.
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What do kittens learn through play?
Play is the way in which kittens learn all the important cat skills; when they're little, it's through play, and rough and tumble with their siblings and their moms, that they learn important boundaries, pick up communication and social skills, and of course learn how to bite and use their claws effectively.
As kittens get older, playtime becomes less about play-fighting with the rest of the litter and starts to focus more on objects, so that they can polish their hunting abilities.
Just as kittens learn some boundaries from playing with their litter, playing with you is just as important for learning their boundaries with people. Of course, play isn't just about learning; it also prevents boredom that can lead to behavior problems later in life, and it gives them plenty of exercise, which is the best way to stop them putting on too much weight or developing health problems in the future.
How much time should you spend playing with your kitten?
Kittens basically have two modes: tearing about like human toddlers, and fast asleep. And while you can let them get on with it for most of the time, it's essential to set aside some time every day for structured playtime.
While with an adult cat you should devote about half an hour a day in total to playtime, with a kitten you should aim for at least an hour in total, split into short sessions – about ten minutes to quarter of an hour – throughout the day.
That way you won't have to sacrifice a big chunk of time in one go, and it should also mean that you're less likely to be pestered by a bored kitten when you're trying to work, take care of chores or cook dinner.
Games to play with kittens
As we've mentioned, the games that kittens most like to play are the ones that teach them how to hunt and give them plenty of opportunities to practice their skills. And you'll be able to tell what these are just from the way in which your kitten plays by itself; it'll stalk and pounce on things, it'll bat at dangly items, and it'll grasp and bite toys.
So for fun and engaging kitten playtime, you'll need to supply toys that make these games even more exciting for your kitten:
1. Use a teaser wand
Perhaps the best kitten toy of all (and indeed one that's just as much fun for an adult cat) is some sort of dangly thing on a stick (or a teaser wand, if you prefer).
It's the ideal go-to kitten toy, because it covers all the bases; it's perfect for stalking, chasing and pouncing, you can dangle it for your kitten to bat at, and once it catches the dangly thing it can practice its killing skills.
You can also try teaching your kitten to play fetch with a toy or a ball; throw it across the room, and if they chase it and bring it back, be sure to reward with praise and treat. And a plastic ball with a tinkly bell inside it can provide hours of entertainment for a kitten to play with by itself.
Need more ideas? Take a look at our guide to fun games to play with cats; they'll work just as well with kittens.
Should you let kittens play with your hands?
In short: no. As we said earlier, an important aspect of playing with a kitten is to teach it boundaries, and one thing you don't want to do is give your kitten the impression that your hands and fingers are toys to sink their teeth and claws into.
Part of playing with a kitten safely is ensuring that it's safe for you; you don't want to be reaching for the antiseptic and Band-Aids after every play session. Hands (and also bare feet) can be terribly tempting to a kitten, though, so the best way to stop it from trying to play with them is to teach it that hands and feet are actually really boring.
If your kitten tries to play with them, don't shoo it away or try to get them out of its reach; instead, keep them very still (which can be a challenge if there are needle-sharp claws dug into them) and stay quiet until they stop playing with them, then attract their attention with a soft toy and praise them when they start to play with that instead.
If you repeat this process your kitten will eventually decide that toys are a lot more entertaining than boring old hands and feet.
Other ways to keep your kitten entertained
You can't be expected to play with your kitten every minute it's awake, but your kitten doesn't understand that, so it pays to make your home a place where there are plenty of ways for your kitten to entertain itself when you're busy doing human things.
1. Create the perfect playground for your kitty
Investing in one of the best cat trees is a great way to keep a keep a kitten occupied; it's perfect for climbing, scratching, hiding and of course settling down for a much-needed nap when it all gets a bit too much.
2. Consider a puzzle feeder
Another fine option would be a puzzle feeder, which will stimulate your kitten's hunting instincts and help them work out how to get food for themselves. You don't necessarily have to buy a full-size puzzle feeder; a plastic ball with room inside for a few pieces of kibble can make for a similarly rewarding toy.
3. Have kitten teething toys to hand
Like other young animals, kittens can be prone to teething problems as their adult teeth grow in; to make this situation less stressful, having some of the best kitten teething toys around can be a godsend.
4. Go DIY
Don't forget that a few cardboard boxes and paper bags around your home can make for a fantastic kitten playground; lots of places to explore, hide and nap, for very little cost. And if you need more ideas, our guide to DIY cat toys and how to entertain indoor cats has some tips that work just as well with kittens.
While it's hard to resist the temptation of playing with a new kitten as much as possible, the novelty can slowly wear off as the weeks go by and real life starts getting in the way, but it's important to keep up a kitten playtime regime every day if you want your tiny, bitey fluffball to have the best possible life.
By setting aside a few minutes, a few times every day for playtime with your kitten, you can provide your kitten with plenty of exercise and excitement, and teach it valuable life skills. Keep it stimulating, keep it safe and, most of all, keep it fun!
Jim is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler based in Bath, who last year adopted a pair of sibling rescue cats who turned out to be effectively feral, and has spent a lot of time since then trying to get them accustomed to people (some success) and each other (ongoing project).
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