The Role of Play in the Quality of a Cat's Life

Bringing a new pet into the family is an important step, and you want to do all that you can to make sure the pet you bring home will be a good fit.  Cats can have some classic behavioral problems.  Can you do anything to reduce the risks of your next kitten developing these problems?  The more you know about your cat's early life, the more accurately you can predict the chances of behavioral issues. 

The time between weaning and puberty is a critical developmental stage of any animal.  What should a kitten be doing in this time frame?  It needs to be engaging in play with other kittens and cats. In the wild, play is a reasonably risky behavior.  It increases the opportunity to get hurt; it makes those engaged in play conspicuous to potential predators; it expends a lot of energy. Yet, "play has persisted in numerous species through centuries of evolutionary change. And many animals spend much of their time in play. So if play has its costs, it should also have benefits that help animals survive" (Flanagan).

It turns out that play has a few benefits. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, who has been researching rats - one of the most playful animals on earth - since the 1990s, discovered that engaging in unsupervised free-play affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex of the brain has been linked to planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.  Pellis's study he found that "the rats raised in a play-deprived environment . . . had a more immature pattern of neuronal connections in the medial prefrontal cortex" (Henig).  But what exactly does this mean?  Pellis concluded that play-deprived brains "will be less able to make subtle adjustments to the social world" (Henig). In essence, the more an animal plays, the more the brain grows (Sharpe).

In addition to affecting the mental capacity of the brain, play affects the emotional development, and this may have the most significant impact on the quality of life of your cat.  When animals play, they are often engaging in hunt-like behaviors.  Prey species will often enjoy being chased.  Predators want to be the ones doing the chasing.  Cats - who are both predators and prey - engage happily in either role.  This rough play will have moments of stress.  As humans overseeing these kittens engage in stressful play, it is counterproductive to interrupt it.  Since its brain is developing, "when a baby animal experiences stress, its brain changes so that it’s subsequently less sensitive to stress hormones" (Sharpe).  Through the engagement of rough play, the kittens "prime or fine-tune their own stress response" (Sharpe).  This will enable the kitten to endure a higher level of stress as an adult without it negatively affecting the cat.  A cat that doesn't have these opportunities to play roughly grows into a more sensitive, emotionally fragile adult.

What does all this mean for your cat?  To have the best chances of owning a well-adjusted, intelligent, social cat, it needs to engage in a lot of play as a kitten.  Kittens raised in cages cannot participate in the expansive play for optimal brain development.  Caged kittens are in a restricted environment that doesn't provide challenges nor a mixture of other cats with whom to interact.  Kittens need to have a riskier environment with other friendly kittens and cats around them while they partake in the activity of play.  It will help them make both physical and social mistakes.  When a kitten falls off a cat tree, it learns to be more careful when climbing.  When it gets too rough with another household cat, it learns how to read body language better.  When it bites too hard in roughhousing, it receives a hard bite and learns to lighten up.

The more restricted the environment, the fewer opportunities there are to engage in the free play that is necessary for intellectual, social, and emotional development.  Unfortunately, most behavioral disorders don't surface until the cat is around a year old, so you won't really see the results of an improper beginning until your cat is an adult.  Make sure your future family member has the best possible start in life by growing up in a home with places to climb, buddies to rough house with, and fun to be had around every corner.

For more information on exactly what your kitten is learning within the first 12-14 weeks, please read our article on Why it is it is Best for Kittens to stay With Mom in a Home Environment for 12-14 weeks.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Ruth. "Scientists Work on Learning Why Many Animals are Beasts of Play: NORTH SPORTS FINAL, CN Edition]." Chicago Tribune (pre-1997 Fulltext), Nov 15, 1991, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/283203253?accountid=176169.

Henig, Robin Marantz. “Taking Play Seriously.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/magazine/17play.html. 

Sharpe, Lynda. “So You Think You Know Why Animals Play...” Scientific American Blog Network, 17 May 2011, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/so-you-think-you-know-why-animals-play/.

1 comment

  • Ellen Cantarow

    Ellen Cantarow New York City

    My Bengal, Bella: I adopted her from her former owner when she was nearly a year old. He was going overseas for work and couldn't take her with him. He couldn't remember the name of the breeder he got her from; he was ignorant about having to do so. I certainly didn't ask him if she had been caged. Bella loves me to play with her, and she plays like crazy with my little rescue kitty, a short-hair named Jamie. The are perfectly matched in energy, and are best friends. I play with Bella at night when she demands I do so (she has her ways of showing me that I must drag the tape measure around the house, chase her, let her chase me, etc.) She also plays happily with Jamie. She is a very intelligent animal - also quite manipulative, though I imagine you can't use "manipulative" for a cat; she just has learned how to get me to do what she wants. if you will, she's trained me . . . . . .

    My Bengal, Bella: I adopted her from her former owner when she was nearly a year old. He was going overseas for work and couldn't take her with him. He couldn't remember the name of the breeder he got her from; he was ignorant about having to do so. I certainly didn't ask him if she had been caged. Bella loves me to play with her, and she plays like crazy with my little rescue kitty, a short-hair named Jamie. The are perfectly matched in energy, and are best friends. I play with Bella at night when she demands I do so (she has her ways of showing me that I must drag the tape measure around the house, chase her, let her chase me, etc.) She also plays happily with Jamie. She is a very intelligent animal - also quite manipulative, though I imagine you can't use "manipulative" for a cat; she just has learned how to get me to do what she wants. if you will, she's trained me . . . . . .

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