How Pets Play, Why Cats Play, and What Dog Play Means

KittenJumpHow pets play and why dogs and cats play games fascinates the people who love them. Cat play, dog play and kitten games are exactly the same–only different–with identical purposes but variation in styles. :P These days, I have a front-row seat with the “old lady” Seren-Kitty doing her best to keep order, while Magical-Dawg and Karma-Kitten wreak havoc.You can’t help but smile or laugh out loud when the fur-kids throw a play-party.

Oh, and that picture (above) of the kitten vaulting over another? That’s Karma’s latest favorite hiss-inspiring activity. I call it his “drive by” when he races across the room, and LEAPS over top of Seren, creating feline angst and prompting her to chase-to-chastise the furry miscreant. Of course, that’s what Karma wants, to get the old girl to chase him. When she catches the big guy, he immediately flops on the floor while she yells cat curses at him, and paw-swats his face.

When that doesn’t work, Karma simply tackles Seren, using his 13 pounds to pancake her petite 6-pound frame to the carpet. You can almost see him smile as she yodels her outrage.

Karma is in kitty heaven.

He does something similar with Magic. Karma saunters up to my 90+ pound German Shepherd, crouches for a moment, makes sure the Magical-Dawg is watching, and then SPRINGS away to duck under furniture. Magic takes the bait and invitation, and sprints after him. It makes me tired to watch.

IS IT PLAY, OR AGGRESSION?

It can be hard to tell sometimes what’s “real” and what kind of play is “just fooling around.” In fact, both dog play and cat play can tip over into dangerous aggression if the pets get too wound up.

Dog and cat play use the same behaviors as hunting, attack, and aggressive behavior, but the pets use “meta signals” to let the other party know it’s all in good fun. For instance, dogs use the “play bow” with butt-end up and forepaws down to signal that everything that comes after this signal is not serious. Cats also can use a play bow, or roll on their back to solicit attention or a game.

Here’s a BIG clue. Doggy play includes growls, whines and barks. Cat play typically is silent. If your cats become vocal during play, it’s time to stop the games. And if both of the pets keep coming back for more, they’re likely just having a good time.

WHY PETS PLAY

In years’ past, the experts often ascribed play to be only the means by which juvenile animals practiced skills they’d need later as adults. Kittens played to hone hunting ability, while puppies played to strengthen muscles and practice various doggy techniques.

They neglected to mention that play, quite simply, is FUN! Cats stalk toy mice and kittens attack ankles for the pure joy, as an outlet for energy, stress reliever, and potent relaxation technique. Dogs steal socks and dance away out of reach, and play “tag” with owners, other animals, and even the reluctant cat. If you believe cats and dogs don’t laugh, just look more closely at your furry companion in the throws of blissful play.

Karma-Seren

Now 13 pounds and a year old, the play has slowed down, and 17-year-old Seren is grateful!

KITTEN PLAY

By four weeks of age, kittens practice four basic play techniques: play fighting, mouse pounce, bird swat, and fish scoop. The first play displayed by kittens is on the back, belly-up, with paws waving. Feints at the back of a sibling’s neck mimic the prey-bite used to dispatch mice (toy or real). Kittens also practice the simpering sideways shuffle, back arched high, almost tiptoeing around other kittens or objects. Soon, the eye-paw coordination improves to execute the pounce, the boxer stance, chase and pursuit, horizontal leaps, and the face-off where kittens bat each other about the head.

Karma has decided “riding” a towel dragged across the floor is great fun. Kitty sledding, anyone?

PUPPY PLAY

Puppy play can be similar, but while kittens use paws to tap-tap-tap objects and manipulate/test their surroundings, pups mouth–everything. By five weeks, puppies often carry things around. This ensures owners must be good housekeepers or risk losing wallets, underwear, and other important valuables. About the same age, pups begin playing tug-of-war with your pant leg, each others’ tails, and anything within reach.

Magic still loves to play keep-away. Thank goodness he only targets doggy toys and human socks these days, rather than (urk!) puppy poop.

Puppy and kitten play offers endless entertainment to them as well as watching humans. The awkwardness, intensity, and abandon of these antics give way to greater finesse and dexterity as the pet matures.

PuppyBowl 017

ADULT PET PLAY

While adult pets play less than rambunctious babies, all dogs and cats play to some extent through their entire life. It’s not only fun for you both, but healthy as well. Keeping dogs and cats active and moving ensures they stay lean, and interested in the world around them.

At age 17, Seren still races laps around the living room and up and down the stairs. While she’d deny it, chasing the Karma-Kitten has brought a gleam back to her eyes and Seren really seems to enjoy the tag-team matches they play.

Now eight years old, Magic could play “fetch” literally for hours, with his ball, a stick, a stuffed toy–anything at all that fits into that grinning mouth. Frisbees are a favorite. In the summer, hose-tag keeps him happy. And of course, rolling on his back with a squeaky-chew in his mouth is right up there with treats. His most favorite game of all, though, is sniffing cat butt. Ahem.

Play is serious business for our dogs and cats. Take a lesson from them, and find time to play every day. In a stress-filled world, we all benefit from a daily dose of giggles. Play with your pets–and watch them smile from both ends. Just for fun, here’s a kitten fix, below!

So what special games do your cats and dogs play? Seren used to love to play “chase the feather” as it disappeared underneath a pillow. Are doggy (or kitty) games learned from each other? Do tell!

Find out more about kitten play and behavior in the book COMPLETE KITTEN CARE. And stay tuned for more puppy-licious info in the forthcoming book COMPLETE PUPPY CARE!

 I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book give aways and appearances related to my  THRILLERS WITH BITE!

Comments

How Pets Play, Why Cats Play, and What Dog Play Means — 34 Comments

  1. We currently have two rescue labbies who, believe it or not DO NOT play. One of them was in a shelter for over a year and the other was a breeder mom. Both came to us with some behavioral issue. The issues are gone and they are well-behaved, but they don’t play…I try to entice them with all sorts of different games, fetch, chase, whatever and no interest. I know it’s because of the trauma of their earlier years, but sure wish I could find a way to get through.

    • Hi Kate, that’s sad–but so glad you rescued the labs and they’re healthy now. It does seem that some dogs miss out on learning the joys of play. I’ve known of cases, though, where interaction with another playful dog (or puppy) actually taught the older play-deficient canine what to do. Maybe you could connect with some other playful dogs for play-dates?

      • Amy, yes I’ve thought of doing that…but we we still have some behavioral issues to work out. One of them is not very tolerant of new dogs and one is still pretty fearful. She will ‘try’ to play – she’ll bound after a ball…but then it’s almost like the fear takes over and she just stops and sits down. We’re working on it.

        • Ahhhh…poor thing. Labs are so “birdy” and also scent/food motivated. Might try using a cat tease wand with feathers, or a puzzle toy filled with liver treats. Good luck! Bless your heart for working on it with them.

          • Good idea on the cat tease thing – I’ll try that. They both do the puzzle things – love them. Maggie, the little fearful one can only do certain ones – easier ones, but she’s getting pretty good at them. Jack (SlimDoggy) uses his brute force on them but loves them too. BTW, I just finished your book Lost & Found and really enjoyed it!

  2. You didn’t mention the dominant dog play that looks like fighting but it’s only play-aggression, When big dogs meet, they seem to have to go through this. It used to scare me with my big black Lab mix (think he was part Chow or Akita). Every time he saw a Chow, he wanted to go after it – if he was on a leash. But in a dog park they would just play rough for a little while, bumping, growling, slobbering on each other, and then it was done and they were fine and really tame and calm after that. Could you tell me more about that? (By the way, it was the tiny yippy dogs that were truly aggressive with my big dog. He never bit but he did snap at them a couple of times. He became submissive around them eventually. Disgusting.)
    Thanks, Dana

    • Hi Dana, Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting. Great question! And the leash-aggression is actually quite common. Part of that has to do with dogs feeling defensive when on leash because they can’t get away. Think of the old “fight-or-flight” impulse; when you take away one option (flight), the behavior defaults to the only option available (fight). There’s also a dog trainer saying that says, “it goes down the leash.” That is, the human’s attitude gets telegraphed down the leash, too, so if YOU feel the least bit concerned and your grip tightens on the leash, your dog cues off of that as well. Here’s a recent article about how to walk leash-aggressive puppies (works for adult dogs, too):

      http://puppies.about.com/od/BehaviorProblems/a/Aggression-With-Other-Dogs.htm

      It’s also quite common that the little dogs act out toward the bigger dogs–sort of a Napoleon complex, LOL! So glad that your fellow was polite, or it could have been tragic. Oh, and often it’s the calm dog that KNOWS he’s in charge that lets the others “act big” because he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything. Rather than thinking of your dog as being submissive toward them, he’s likely just being tolerant of the rude behavior–God bless the peace keeper dogs!

  3. I love it when my 8-1/2 year old bull dog plays. In a snap, she seems puppy-fied, bounding through the air then holding dramatic stances. :) We also have a bird who’s full of personality and, let’s face it, mischief!

    • “Puppy-fied” . . . I am SO going to steel that! :) August, I love watching and trying to understand some of the inter-species interaction. Parrots are so clever, and I’ve known of some that learned how to “command” the dog to come/sit/whatever and even treat for obeying. Clearly in those instances, “bird brain” would be a compliment.

  4. My Macy who is 8 plays a little but she’s a hider and burrower. Only problem is when she burrows under a towel or blanket and the others find her under there – they won’t leave her alone and jump on her. Her brother Thomas has play time every night with his toy soft balls and balls with bells in them. He runs and chases those things room to room. My littlest fellow Termite who is about 10 months is flitting, jumping and running around the house like a maniac. I forgot how much energy they have. He likes to open his mouth and take a flying leap on the other 2 and bite/nip them. Thomas is more tolerant but Macy squeals like a pig and believe me he knows how far he can push each one. I love watching them play – it’s hilarious.

    • Ha-ha-ha! Seren used to do the “burrowing” thing but I think she’s fearful Magic will root her out. And those old arthritic bones wouldn’t take it. She prefers to tease him out in full view. Today, Seren purposefully strolled over to Magic’s water bowl and drank . . .that’s a first. He wasn’t watching or it might’ve gotten interesting.

    • Hi Wiley–wow, a philosopher dog! Very pleased to meet you. I read a couple of your posts and you have a fun, unique perspective. Nicely done! Oh…and you might want to check out BlogPaws.com where lots of the pet-speaking bloggers hang out. *s*

  5. Petco sent me a care package that includes a toy for the cats that they love love love. They’re so old that I’ve lost track of their age, but they love to play with each other and their toys.

    The boys play with each other very roughly and I love watching them. But the best part of watching our dogs play is when our princess gets involved. Sydney watches them until she just can’t help but join in and it’s so very sweet to see.

    I loved revisiting the puppy and kitten months through this post. I loved that time.

    • Hey Kimberly! Yes, both my fur-kids are long past the puppy and kitten stage. There’s nothing quite like the babies for a cute-fix, but the adult pet love that’s matured and strengthened with our mutual history together is something even more special.

  6. My dogs Maya & Pierson are fun to watch, especially when they really get into it. Two fun games I play with them (other than the somewhat gentle wrestling) are hide-and-seek and one where I throw a blanket over them. You really have to see this game to understand the fun of it. Search for Fun Dog Game – Covering Your Dog With a Blanket on YouTube. I can’t think of how this game would help them in acquiring adult skills so playing just for fun seems more likely.

    • What fun! I do something similar with my cat. There’s something about the “hiding” part that intrigues pets, I think–allows them to focus on other senses besides sight (which they probably do, anyway).

  7. My adult cats all still love to play and I’m glad they do. It’s great exercise for them. Without our play sessions, they’d be nothing more than couch potatoes. They all have their own preferences about what kinds of toys they like to play with too.

    • It’s funny but Seren seems to have become more playful just in the past year. Since she’s 16 I’m delighted she’s still so active.

    • I think Karma acts like Seren is a personal squeaky toy. He just reaches a paw to softly touch her and she’ll hiss like a leaky balloon, and he’s delighted!

  8. We’ve got a new kitten in the house, so I have to get used to the playing thing again. LOL Have to wear her butt out before bed or she decides to go into the “kitty crazies” while we’re trying to sleep (which would be fine if she didn’t jump on the bed to do it). She likes jumping. She “chirps” a lot when she plays (she chirps a lot in general, really) – and right now she’s started CHEWING a lot, so I had to get her some teething treats (she’s right at that age – just had to put bitter apple on the stick portion of one of her wand toys because she chomped the end right off it). Thankfully she seems to be doing a good job of chewing on the TOYS and not electric cords, but we nipped that in the butt pretty quickly on the first day she was here.
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    • Ah yes, the chewing. Karma continues to want to chew, even more than Seren did. Good luck with the bitter apple. Some cats, it works well, to use Vicks (the smell keeps them from chewing). But then…others seem to LIKE the smell!

      • Thankfully she doesn’t seem to do it TOO much, and her “snarfing” on the floor for every little thing (like lint) seems to be slowing down already, so I think she’ll eventually grow out of it if we work with her on it. We’ve already reduced her suckling behavior by a LOT just in the space of a few days of consistently pulling hands away when she tries it, and she only seems to chew when she’s playing, so if I can direct her to proper chew-y things we should be good. Debating whether some of the nylon cloth dog toys (the good tough woven ones) would be a good idea.
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