Play Therapy for Cats
By Jackson Galaxy
It seems odd to put "play" together with "therapy." After all, cats seem to keep themselves very well entertained without interference from us.
However, there are good reasons for us to "interfere." Many emotional and behavior problems in cats result from stress. Animals feel stress when they are helpless to change the conditions of their lives. Our cats, especially indoor cats, have little control over their environments. Along with the ordinary stresses of modern living such as noise and air pollution, it's no wonder our cats have problems!
There are two important factors to consider when dealing with feline behavior. First, the stressors that cats experience on a daily basis, and second, the outlets - how cats manifest (or hide) that stress:
* Territory. A cat's territory is crucially important. When we urbanized as a culture and made our cats mostly indoors, we decreased their natural sense of territory by about 90%. Now imagine the stresses in a multi-cat home or one with small children.
* Routine. Cats prefer everything to happen in the same way, at the same time, every day. They don't like surprises! Fortunately, the stress that disruptions in routine can bring can be wonderfully soothed with play therapy. Examples of stressful disruptions include remodeling, with all its scary noises and strangers coming through the house; neighborhood cats in the territory; and new babies or other new residents in the home.
* Boredom. Our cats are not far removed from their wild ancestors. A natural hunter with no prey to stalk is like a kid without recess - bored, edgy, and looking for trouble!
Common Stress Outlets
* Internalization. Some symptoms that your cat is taking in more than he or she can handle include excessive grooming; tension tail twitching; and somaticizing (obsessive-compulsive behaviors, vomiting, appetite disorders, and other chronic medical problems).
* Externalization. More extroverted cats can (and probably will) act out their stress in one of the following ways:
* Play Aggression. To a cat, play and prey are the same thing! That inner hunter has to come out somehow! These actions are not spiteful, just misdirected.
* Redirected Aggression. One way of letting off steam in a multicat home is to take it out on the other cats. "Redirected" means that the cat who got whacked just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It can take a long time to normalize relations again. Stress is not usually the major cause of redirected aggression, but heightened stress levels most certainly can help precipitate an event.
* Other Behavior. Litterbox problems, scratching furniture, and middle-of-the-night vocalizing may all have a stress component. Stress alone doesn't often cause these problems to continue, but it is usually a contributor.
Treating the Problem - Let's Play!
The first step toward establishing a difference between casual play and play therapy is routine. Incorporating a play therapy session around the times of your cat's highest activity level will help dissipate a lot of stored frustration, stress and energy.
Interactive toys are used for play therapy; the best one is called Da Bird. It's a fishing pole toy with a unique feather configuration at the end that sounds like flapping wings. It's totally irresistible!
It's not enough to dangle the toy while watching TV. You have to be the bird! You've probably seen your cat perched in the window watching real birds. Now, let the cat follow a pattern of flight around the room long enough to get completely involved in it: with rapt attention, tensing muscles, and a little twitch of the tail. Talk to the cat in a light praising tone.
At some point, swoop the toy close enough for the cat to make a grab. When he catches you, play dead, but keep gentle tension on the string. When the cat relaxes, you make your escape! Fly around a bit, then allow yourself to be caught again. This whole routine can be repeated, of course, ad infinitum, until the cat is finished. But watch out for the "second wind!" This routine should truly tire the cat out.
The final step is a high protein snack. Kitten food, a dried liver treat, or a teaspoon of meat baby food work well. This completes the natural cycle of hunt-catch-kill-eat.
Once the session is over, put away the special play therapy toy. It only comes out for these special sessions. Regular daily play therapy work will make your cat happier and more confident, and less likely to manifest stress in unpleasant and unwanted ways.
Many cats benefit greatly from flower essence therapy. Spirit Essences offers many formulas to help with behavioral issues. In this case, "Feline Training" will help adjust to the new lessons of play therapy, especially during that crucial first few weeks of often frustrating un-learning of bad habits, and redirection towards appropriate outlets.
For a comprehensive, in-depth, 9-page report on this topic, including details about stress behaviors, specific "prey" strategies, and explicit how-to instructions for encouraging your cat to participate, see "What's Play Got To Do With It?" in the Little Big Cat bookstore! For personal assistance with your cat's health or behavior problems, call Jackson Galaxy at Little Big Cat! Schedule a consultation at 310-376-6616 or find out more at our consulting web page.
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