What do cats like to play with?

Cat staring at ball of wool
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“What do cats like to play with?” is a common question amongst new pet parents looking for ways to keep their feline fur baby happy and healthy, and for good reason. Choosing the best cat toys for your pet is vital as not only do cats love to play, they need to play.

For young cats, play helps mental and physical development. For older cats, it provides an outlet for predatory instincts, staves off boredom and provides exercise. There are hundreds of types of toys on the market, so let’s take a look at some of the options so that you can decide on what’s best for your cat.  

Laser toys for cats

We tend to think of our cats as cute and cuddly, but nature intended them to be hunters. Cats develop predatory instincts at the age of around 14 weeks, and will start to stalk, pounce on and grasp toys, just as they would with a live mouse.

Cats who spend the majority of their time indoors may not be able to relieve their hunting instincts in quite the same way as outdoor cats. This can lead to boredom, behavioral problems and even depression. 

Laser toys, which shoot out beams of light in unpredictable ways, are a great way to provide stimulation in a secure environment. They’re completely safe and if you choose an automated version then it will run whether you’re there to press the switch or not. Check out our guide to the best automatic laser cat toys for more ideas.

Automated cat toys

As cat owners, we’d all like to be there to play with our pets all the time. In reality many of us have to be out of the house for long periods every day. Automated cat toys are designed to keep your favorite feline entertained when you’re not there. 

The best automatic cat toys are those that mimic the movements of live prey – quick, unpredictable movements that will engage your cat. Anything with its own power source which can create independent movement (for example, a windmill toy with moving arms) is sure to spark interest. When choosing, take your cat’s individual needs into account as well. For example, if he or she is less mobile, choose a toy with adjustable speed settings to avoid feline frustration.

Interactive cat toys

Cat playing with feather toy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

By ‘interactive’, we mean toys that don’t have their own power source and require either you or your cat to move them. This category also contains toys such as treat balls, which need to be filled up to make them interesting. Some of these toys can be used for solo play while others need you to be there to take part. The latter type is great for building a relationship with your cat. They’re also useful for teaching kittens that while they can play with a toy, they can’t play with your fingers! This type of toy runs from the basic (feathers tied to a line) to the sophisticated – take a look at our guide to the best interactive cat toys for some examples.

Fish cat toys

We all know that cats love real fish, but most also love fake fish. A lot of cat toys are fish-shaped and the irregular shape seems to make them a good choice for moving around. Some of the best fish cat toys get their results from battery-powered movement, while others rely on catnip. For an added touch of realism, you can even get robot swimming fish to drop in a bowl of water! That’s a toy that’s probably best played with under supervision, though, and you might like to have a couple of towels handy as well.

Why do cats like to play with string?

This one is a bit of a mystery – why, when we’ve spent tens of dollars on ‘proper’ cat toys, do our kitties prefer the string off the box? Experts think it may be linked to the resemblance to a mouse tail - cats could just be hard-wired to pounce on anything that’s stringy and wiggles when touched. It could equally be that cats know, but they’re not prepared to tell us! 

Either way, never let your cat play with a piece of loose string unsupervised. If they accidentally eat it, it could get wrapped around internal organs and cause serious problems. Check string on toys regularly and remove or replace it if it’s getting a bit straggly. If you are interested in making DIY cat toys at home, which can be both satisfying and budget-friendly, our guide will give you some ideas on how to do it safely.

Do cats like to play fight with humans?

We’ve already seen that cats love to play and that a lot of their play is centered around developing their hunting instincts. A litter of young cats can often be seen engaging in quite rough play with each other. For pet cats, should you try and replicate that behavior by play fighting with your cat? The answer is that it depends on the individual cat. 

While some love it, others will feel intimidated. Never allow your cat to play fight with your hands or any other part of your body – sooner or later, you’re going to have some nasty scratch marks! Cats also don’t try to fight like humans, so any attempt at holding your cat down is stressful and unfair. Letting your cat play fight with a toy such as a fishing pole while you hold it will be better for both of you and will allow your kitty a release for any pent-up feelings. 

For more guidance on how to play with a cat, read our vet’s advice. Whatever toys you go for remember that cats get bored quickly, so in addition to some more expensive items, do have a basket of budget toys on hand to keep fickle felines feelin’ fine.

Sara is a freelance journalist and copywriter of many years’ experience with a lifelong love of animals. She’s written for a range of magazines and websites on subjects varying from pet care to travel. A horse rider since the age of five, she’s currently a full time pet slave to horse Blue and gorgeous, goofy English Springer Spaniel Olly. Adorable Olly has a huge sense of adventure and no sense of direction, keeping Sara on her toes.