Ask a Vet: What's the Best Way to Play With My Kitten?


Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: I just adopted a new kitten at the SF SPCA – how do I  best play with my kitten – she runs up my legs and it hurts but I don’t want to yell at her or scare her away.  

Kitten play can be defined as anything from light scratches to hard uninhibited skin breaking bites. It can be directed towards humans or other animals.  Under-stimulation or lack of appropriate play and exploratory behavior options may worsen the condition – which is to say that if you provide lots of appropriate play opportunities, the unsolicited attacks on your legs should lessen or stop. The postures of a cat at play include arched back, hiding, chasing, stalking and pouncing. Normal play behavior includes: social, object, locomotor and predatory play. They all start between 4-8 weeks of age and can last into adulthood. 

Good job for not trying to scare her away – what you want to do is to engage your kitten in 3 different types of activities to get all that kitten energy out as well as providing a relaxing respite so your kitty can conk out when she’s tired herself out:

1. Interactive play: This is play that you cat engages in solo. Offer feed dispensing toys, toys that make noise, fly/hang, flutter, bouncy type toys – panic mouse, iphone/ipad apps, boxes to jump in and out of

2. Active play: In this play, you are engaging with your cat, but providing more appropriate objects of attention than your legs, the curtains, the expensive couch. Use wand toys, laser toys, feathered toys. Play peeping tom, find it, toy under a blanket, hide treats in puzzles. When you are playing with your cat, really be there – be present. In other words, don’t just wave a feather wand around with one hand while checking your facebook with the other. Your cat will know that you aren’t present. They are smart and intuitive. That’s why we love them.

3. Relaxation type behaviors: Encourage your cat to relax by providing comfy places. Blankets, cat beds with sides, safe dome-like structures. Groom your cat if she’s into it. Reward her with treats and affection when she’s relaxed.

Things to remember:

Hands and feet are NOT toys ever. 

Identify the triggers that get your cat going and avoid those - redirect away from your body with wand toys or a laser toy

Watch closely for playful body postures and redirect or remove yourself before your kitten gets all worked up 

Enrich environment: Offer multiple climbing perches, rotate toys, TV, radio, hide food, toys

Place with other cats if possible for play sessions or adopt a second cat, make sure cats are healthy and vaccinated 

Inappropriate play behavior can be interrupted with a mild stimulus that will startle the cat enough to stop the behavior but should not make cat fearful

Never use physical punishment for aggression 

Plenty of scheduled play time at least three 10 minute scheduled play sessions per day 


Other things that might help: 

Feliway plug in, regular Nail trims, clicker training


For other ideas, check out this book: “50 Games To Play With Your Cat”, by Jackie Strachan.

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