I’ve had cats all my life. Most of them grew out of the cat version of “the terrible twos”. My last cat, Joshua, was like a kitten until the end. He loved to play and had loads of energy.
I’ve since gotten two new cats; Charlie and Arthur.
Although they’re only in their second year of life, Joshua had nothing on Charlie. He’s go-go-go all day. Even when he’s taking a deep cat nap, any sound has him up, checking it out, and ready for action.
I’ve found this 5-step process helps keep him happy.
Signs your cat needs this routine
It’s easy to mistake bad behaviour as your cat just being a jerk.
But bad behaviour is often a sign of your cat needing/wanting something.
Charlie and Arthur are from the same litter, but they have two different love languages.
Arthur’s love language is food. He comes to me several times a day to tell me his food dish is empty, he wants treats, or he wants fresher food.
Charlie’s love language is play and one-on-one attention. He also comes to me several times a day to tell me it’s playtime. He’s not a very vocal cat but he’ll meow, raise his paw and often stand on his two back feet like a bear.
I work from home. So this behaviour can be disruptive.
If I ignore his first requests, he’ll take things to the next level. This often looks like:
- Scratching the rug
- Getting up on the counter
- Getting up on the dining room table
- Playing with my plant
All things he knows he’s not supposed to do.
But he also knows, those things get a reaction from me.
I get up to shoo him away. That’s attention. That’s exactly what Charlie is after.
His little but cute brain doesn’t know good attention from bad attention. He just wants attention.
When Charlie gives me the signal, this is the process I follow. And it works like a charm, every time.
1 – Hunt
There’s playing where I’m trying to move a wand around while I read something for work, and then there’s playing where I’m giving Charlie my full attention, acknowledging him, praising him, and making a toy act like his prey in the wild.
The former is the type of play Charlie is after.
He knows when I’m half-assing it and he’ll walk away pretty quickly, only to return shortly after, bugging me to play again.
Every cat is different and the way your cat likes to play will be unique to them.
Charlie also needs to run. He has so much energy and he’ll sprint, jump up and down off of objects, and leap in the air to catch that toy.
He’s a true hunter.
So I go to the basement where there’s more room for him to run and I wave that feather wand around, trying to mimic how his prey would move in the wild. I get him running back and forth on the couch, jumping down from the couch then back up, I move the feather slow, then really fast, make the feather “hide” behind objects, just like a mouse might.
I keep this going for as long as Charlie is interested.
Usually it’s a good 10 – 15 minutes.
Signs hunt time is over
The key is to let your cat tell you when hunting time is done.
If you decide to end it too soon, they won’t be satisfied.
I know Charlie has had enough hunting when he:
- Walks away
- Watches the wand and doesn’t make moves toward it
- Flops over
Now it’s time for play.
2 – Play
Mimicking their behaviour in the wild, a cat would play with its prey once they’ve caught it.
The bird or mouse is now wounded or dead. Can barely move or isn’t moving at all. This is when a cat wants to show off their catch, play with it, fling it in the air.
Charlie likes to take the feather end of the wand in his mouth and trot away with it.
He’ll usually take it somewhere like a box he likes to play in, under the bed, or even on top of the bed.
This is a good place for me to play with him.
If your cat has simply flopped down or is sitting watching the wand, use smaller movements with the toy right in front of them.
You may even get a different toy that’s easier for you/them to play with in one spot.
I’ll dangle the feather over him so he can lay down and play. He’ll roll around, swat at the feather, pull it into his tummy and kick at it with his back legs.
Again, I’ll keep at this type of play until Charlie says he’s done with it. That may look like:
- No longer playing with the toy
- Walking away and finding something else to do
- Going to his food dish
3 – Eat
After a cat has caught its prey and played with it, it’s time to eat it.
So now is a good time to feed your cat.
Charlie’s regular food is usually good enough for him, but if your cat is a picky eater, you may introduce a treat, so that food after playtime is a little more special.
For example, if you normally feed your cat dry food, give them a can of wet food after playtime. Or you may sprinkle a few treats on top of their regular food.
I find eating after playtime should be a full meal, as that’s what it would be in the wild.
However, if your cat requires playtime several times throughout the day, you need to be mindful of the calories they’re consuming. Your vet will be able to give you a good idea of how much food your cat needs, and the type, based on their size, age, and health.
If you’re fitting a play session in between when you normally feed them, giving your cat a few treats instead of a meal is fine.
4 – Rest
After a cat hunts, plays, then eats, it’s time for rest.
Obviously you can’t force your cat to nap, but you can create an environment that’s conducive to their resting.
It should be quiet and calm so they feel it’s safe to relax.
This is not a good time to bring out the vacuum.
Cats also mimic your behaviour. So if you’re up moving around, and are high energy after hunt/play/eat time, they’ll follow your lead.
Rest time is a good time for you to sit down and do some work, or drink your coffee, or disappear into a room where your cat won’t be distracted by you.
5 – Routine
The last step in this process is to create a strict routine you follow.
Cats love routine. And when hunt/play/eat/rest happens at the same time every day, your cat knows when to expect it, and when not to expect it.
It does take time for a cat to adopt a new routine.
Every cat will be different but I’ve found a month of consistent routine forms good habits in our cats.
How active your cat is will determine how many times a day you need to follow hunt/play/eat.
Once a day is the absolute minimum.
But if your cat is driving you crazy, it’s likely they’ll need 3 sessions;
- Mid day or when you get home from work
- Before bed
Because cats are such independent animals, it’s easy to think they’re fine on their own and don’t need much from you.
But you’ve chosen to adopt a cat and you have a responsibility to them, no matter how busy life gets.
Find time in your schedule to play with them; they need that stimulation.
Playtime is essential to keep your cat happy and healthy.
Even if it means getting up 15 minutes earlier to fit in hunt/play/eat/rest time before you leave for the day, and going to bed 15 minutes later so you help your cat get their energy out before bed, please make that time.
The more your cat is acting out, the more attention they need from you.
It will get easier as you settle into a routine and your cat gets to know your patterns. If they know playtime is coming, they’re less likely to act out.
Other reasons for acting out
If playtime isn’t working, it could be a sign that your cat is trying to tell you something else by acting out.
Start by making sure their basic needs are being met:
Love and attention
Cats can feel your energy. So if playtime is done begrudgingly by you and you feel frustrated that you’re having to spend this time with your cat, or you’re distracted and not directing good energy toward them, they’ll feel that and playtime won’t be satisfying to them. Also make time to just be with your cat. Follow them around, look at them, talk to them, pet them. Loving attention and touching can do so much for them.
Your cat may be unhappy with the type of food you’re feeding them. I prefer a low-carb diet for my cats, despite what vets might suggest or what major pet brands will push. A low carb diet is what a cat would eat in the wild; they would never eat wheat (yet most cat foods are full of filler-grains). Try switching up your cat’s food (slowly) to see if a different type of food makes them happier.
Make sure you’re cleaning your cat’s water bowl every day and filling it with fresh, clean water.
Cats are clean animals and are NOT happy when their litter box isn’t clean (or if it’s full of fragranced litter that gets stuck in their paws).
Sustainably Yours is the cat litter I prefer. It’s more expensive than popular clay litters, but it’s so much healthier for your cat, it clumps like a dream so it’s easier to scoop and keep the litter box clean for longer, and it’s environmentally friendly.
If part of your cat’s bad behaviour is going to the bathroom outside the litter box, it’s likely they’re unhappy with the state of their litter box.
Try a natural, unfragranced litter that mimics what they would urinate and defecate in in the wild (e.g. dirt, sand, something soft on their paws).
Make sure it’s kept CLEAN. Scoop the litter box MINIMUM two times a day. Your cat should also have more than one litter box. This ensures they always have a clean place to go.
Your cat may be trying to tell you that they don’t feel well and something feels off by acting out. A vet trip is a good idea when you feel like you’re at your whits end and nothing seems to be working. They can rule out any underlying health issues.
If your cat’s love language is food, this process is still helpful. Get them playing to burn some energy and then feed them as their reward. They’ll be much more satisfied than if you simply dump some food in their bowl.