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

by | Jul 16, 2014 | Ask Amy Videos, Cat Behavior & Care, Dog Training & Care | 34 comments

Nothing is more fun that watching how pets play. But do you know why cats play? or what dog play means? Turns out, it’s more than just fun and games.

why cats playHow 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. 😛 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.

HOW PETS PLAY…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 CATS PLAY & WHAT DOG PLAY MEANS

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.

how pets play

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? Keep in mind the high energy level of kittens when you decide to adopt.

Learn more about kittens development in the COMPLETE KITTEN CARE book.

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. Learn more about puppy development in the Complete Puppy Care book.

what dog play means

HOW PETS PLAY…AS ADULTS

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!

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34 Comments

  1. kate ob

    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.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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?

      Reply
      • kate ob

        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.

        Reply
        • amyshojai

          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.

          Reply
          • kate ob

            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!

          • amyshojai

            Thank you! So glad you enjoyed the book–hope you’ll share a review on amazon or goodreads or wherever. *s*

  2. danabeesvoice

    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

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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!

      Reply
  3. LAPCATS Sacramento Area Cat & Kitten Adoptions

    LOVE to watch critters play, especially the adults. To me it just says they are living a happy life. My senior (cats and dogs) still play–not often, but sometimes. I also love to watch the kitties groom each other.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      Oh, I agree! And the adult pet play is quite different than the bumbling, clueless babies, almost more purposeful.

      Reply
  4. August McLaughlin

    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!

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      “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.

      Reply
      • amyshojai

        Uhm…I meant “steal” that. Urk…long day.

        Reply
  5. Patricia Hubbard

    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.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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.

      Reply
    • amyshojai

      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*

      Reply
  6. Kimberly, The Fur Mom

    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.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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.

      Reply
  7. ILoveDogs

    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.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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).

      Reply
  8. Lorie Huston, DVM, CVJ

    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.

    Reply
    • amyshojai

      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.

      Reply
  9. Susan and the gang from Life with Dogs and Cats

    I never really thought about it, but as someone who lives with dogs and cats, I’ve watched my dogs play noisily and my cats play silently. Except for Dawn, the cat who would really rather not play at all, so she hisses. This usually keeps the others away. Usually.

    –Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      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!

      Reply
  10. Sarah Hadley

    I am aware of dog behavior and understands whether they are playing or showing aggression. When it comes to cats it is difficult to determine what they actually upto.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Yep, cats can be very tricky and subtle. Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting!

      Reply
  11. Karyl Cunningham

    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.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      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!

      Reply
      • Karyl

        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.

        Reply
        • Amy Shojai

          I’d probably go with the small-dog rawhide chews rather than cloth items, and not encourage the cloth targeting schtuff. *s*

          Reply
          • Karyl

            Makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the tip!

          • Karyl

            Pffft I gave her the rawhide chew (we still had some where we used to give them to my grandparents’ dog before he died) – she sniffed it then ignored it. So Anubis has stolen it for his own and now carries it all over the house.

          • Amy Shojai

            LOL! Try dipping in warm water (or chicken broth) and zapping in microwave for 10 seconds first. 🙂

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