Get Playing: A Definitive Guide to Interactive Cat Toys

Cute tabby cat with many toys

Key Points

  • Interactive cat toys provide mental, physical, and social benefits for felines.

  • Cat wands are interactive toys that promote a bond between owner and pet.

  • Battery-powered toys work well for independent play when owners must leave their cats alone.

  • Carve out time to play with your cat twice a day for their well-being.

If you have an indoor cat, you may notice they look out the window or paw at the door to go outside. They're likely bored. Interactive cat toys can solve that problem.

It's not always safe to let your cat enjoy the outside world. Nevertheless, they have the instinct to stalk and hunt prey. You can accommodate them without bringing in a bunch of live mice or birds. Interactive cat toys simulate a cat's natural prey with movements that attract them and keep them motivated to move and improve their cognition.

This definitive guide to interactive cat toys looks at wands, balls, electronic toys, and more. Every cat is unique, so read through the descriptions and benefits of each type of toy before making a choice.

What Are Cat Toys?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer. You probably think of little toy mice when you think of cat toys, and they are. There are also many other types, ranging in size, materials, function, and intended use.

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You don't always buy a cat toy from a store or online. Even your hand or foot can become a cat toy — if you don't mind the bites and scratches. The point is, if they don't have a toy to bat around, cats use whatever they get their claws on to meet their need to play.

Perhaps you come home and find your curtains shredded or your chair with new vertical stripes that precisely match the width of your cat's claws. Perry Mason might argue "circumstantial evidence," but it's pretty obvious your cat found some new toys. You need an alternative.

The cat toy market is enormous. From teasers to tunnels, plush to puzzlers, wands, balls, and lasers, the choices are endless. Such a wide array of options can be daunting for a new cat owner. This guide examines six categories of interactive cat toys, their descriptions, and their benefits to aid you in finding the perfect toy or toys to please your feline, protect your furniture, and save money on Band-Aids for scratches.

Cat Toy Wands & Feather Teasers

Cat toy wands are a specific category, but there is a wide variety. They are stiff, flexible, short, long, adjustable, electronically controlled, or require manual use. These are interactive toys because they require human involvement in a two-way style of play.

The wand itself isn't the stimulant. There's always something extra attached. It may be a lure of a plush mouse, worm, or other eye-catching toy.

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Feather teasers are also very popular with cats. This may be a wand with feathers on the end, or a plush toy bird or other animal with feathers attached. Feathers are attractive because they remind cats of birds, one of their most common prey. Even if your indoor cat has never been outside, they still have that instinct to go after these wispy floating attractions.

Though some wands attach to a table, doorknob, or suction to a window or other surface, most wands require manual manipulation, meaning there's a human on the other end. This interactive element is important for the pet-human bond.

Cat Toy Balls

A cat toy ball sounds pretty simple, right? Just like the wands, there's a variety to choose from. Some are light and soft, so your cat can chew on them. Some are hard plastic, battery-powered, and roll around independently, activated by movement. Other toys feature tracks where balls move around as your cat bats at them. These are usually for independent play because your cat causes them to move without electricity, batteries, or human involvement.

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Balls appeal to cats because they move quickly and allow your kitty to chase them. The electronic ones move erratically to keep your cat's mind as active as their body. They encourage physical exercise and address your cat's instinctual desire to hunt. Cats need these outlets to be who they are.

Electronic Cat Toys

There are other types of electronic cat toys for indoor cats. Laser cat toys are popular with many cats. There are handheld ones you use to direct where you want your cat to go, and there are automatic ones.

Movement attracts cats, which is why electronic hide-and-seek toys stimulate their interest. Some toys feature feather wands or little plastic mice that randomly pop out of the toy, prompting your cat to attack.

Many electronic toys are appropriate for independent play as long as they don't have small pieces or feathers your cat can rip off and swallow. Many electronic toys have automatic shutoff functions, so your cat doesn't become overstimulated or tired.

Electronic toys can do your job temporarily. They take on the task of mentally energizing your cat until you have the time or energy to do it yourself. Rechargeable toys are especially helpful because they don't require buying batteries regularly. You simply recharge the internal battery while your cat rests or sleeps. A toy like the Potaroma Flopping Fish works well.

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Plush Cat Toys

Remember the mice toys mentioned earlier? Here's where they come in. Plush cat toys aren't always in the form of mice, but it's a popular choice for an obvious reason. What's the first type of prey you think of for felines? Mice, of course! As cartoon icon Jinks says, cats "hate meeces to pieces" — but they love to chase the little rodent rascals.

Most plush toys are the perfect size for cats to bat around, carry in their mouths, and even hide in peculiar places. Larger plush toys are usually kicker toys. The cat grabs the toy with their claws and kicks it with their back legs. Plush toys are good for kittens because they're usually small.

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They're also good for senior cats with sensitive teeth or gums. They can bite and chew to their heart's content with no dental pain to spoil their fun.

Another advantage of plush toys is that your cat views them as their killed prey. Those with outdoor cats are probably familiar with the little "gifts" of dead birds, mice, and other small creatures laid lovingly on the doormat. You may find that your indoor cat brings you their toys, putting them on your bed or elsewhere. "Look what I caught!" Consider it a good sign.

Puzzle Cat Toys

One of the best ways a cat achieves mental stimulation is through puzzle toys. These toys typically use food or treats to motivate your cat to solve a puzzle. Unlike dogs, receiving your praise isn't usually a prime motivation for cats.

Felines are very clever and figure out ways to get what they want. Puzzle toys have different challenge levels, depending on the age and abilities of your cat. Adjust the difficulty level as they figure out the solution.

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A puzzle toy can also be a slow feeder for cats who overeat. To get to their meal, they must perform a few physical feats. This slows down the time it takes them to eat, causing them to become full more quickly.

Some of these puzzles work perfectly for busy pet parents who must leave their cat alone while at work. They mentally challenge your cat even when you're not around.

Cat Toy Climbers, Tunnels, & Scratchers

Cats are very active. Even indoors, they try to expend their energy. Cat toy climbers, tunnels, and scratchers are useful outlets for your cat's energy and instinct to climb and run. Unless you have a live tree indoors, get your indoor feline a cat tree or tower.

Many cat trees double as scratchers. Jute or sisal rope is typically wrapped around the support poles of cat towers and trees to give your cat a venue for sharpening and shedding their claws. Without these, they use your chair, remember? Other scratchers lay flat and act as cardboard cat toys. Add a bit of catnip to scratchers to get them started.

Most felines enjoy playing in enclosed spaces. You probably witness your cat getting themselves into closets or boxes. Cat tunnels provide a perfect place for your cat to play.

If you have multiple cats, watch them chase each other up and down a tower and through a tunnel. It's also a great place to escape when they get nervous. An activity mat like the Ripple Rug can be made into a cave or tunnel.

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For small apartments or houses, a cat tree is an ideal way to give your cat a chance to exercise without putting an addition onto your house. This vertical space allows them to climb and exercise. Some products include multiple features. These are wonderful and practical space-savers.

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Benefits of Cat Toys

Cat toys do more than entertain. They enhance your feline's well-being. Food and water are the basics. If that's all a cat receives, they don't live a full and healthy life.

Mental Stimulation

You may not think cats experience boredom, but they do. When a cat wakes up from their nap, they look around for something to do. If they don't have toys to play with, they may engage in destructive behaviors like clawing and ripping at inappropriate objects or furniture.

Cat toys offer mental stimulation, enrichment, and entertainment for bored cats. They're also beneficial for cat owners.

Certified feline training and behavior specialist LeeAnna Buis writes for Preventive Vet about cat toys and how to use them. Buis says:

"Battery-powered toys can be a great option to entertain your cat, particularly during those times when they clearly need something to do but you’re not able to stop for a play session. This is a common problem with more people working from home. Turning on an electronic toy can help tide them over until you’re free for an interactive play session."

Buis recommends taking your cat through their natural prey sequence. This includes staring at their prey, stalking, chasing, and then pouncing on it. Knowing these natural inclinations and playing them out with your cat is helpful. This allows them to use their innate senses and mind.

Physical Exercise

Every animal on the planet needs exercise. Just because cats have a reputation for frequent napping doesn't mean they don't require some form of physical exertion. Interactive cat toys get your feline moving.

Their naps recharge them for their hunting or play sessions. When they play or hunt, they expend a lot of energy in a short amount of time. Regarding their playtime, how much or how long is enough?

The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals is a charity in the United Kingdom helping pets in need. They recommend two daily 15-20-minute play sessions, with breaks in between. Increase these sessions as they become used to the routine and gain better fitness and muscle tone.

The organization says keeping your cat fit and active prevents conditions like obesity, diabetes, and arthritis. Exercise keeps your cat healthy, which saves on vet bills. Preventive measures like these are much easier than dealing with a health problem later.

Bonding with Your Cat

Stimulating your cat's mind benefits their mental health. Exercise promotes better physical health. What about their social and emotional health? Use interactive toys to strengthen the bond with your cat.

Even though cats are independent by nature, they also like to socialize with other cats and their humans. Don't discount their desire for affection and interaction with other humans or animals. Giving them a toy they enjoy is one of the key ways to bond with your cat, according to a February 2023 article by Conscious Cat.

Your cat knows you control some of their toys. When your cat sees you reach for that toy wand, you may see them assume a hunting position. They lie flat with their head down as if concealing themselves from their prey. They know your hand is in control but focus on the toy.

Cats love to play with their humans and may even do things to get their owners' attention. They may attack your feet, not because they're angry with you but because they want to play. You need an interactive cat toy to engage with them.

They know you provide their basic needs of food and water, but interacting in a prey-style game reinforces the sense of security they feel with you. They may not have the cognitive ability to understand the significance of your interactions, but they have the sense — the innate feeling — that there's a connection.

Playtime isn't only engaging for your cat; it's also fun for owners. Cats are so entertaining when they play. You find yourself laughing hysterically at the way their head moves back and forth so quickly and how they race from one end of the room to the other.

Every cat has their own style, like raising up on their hind legs to pounce on a toy or always going to the same spot as their "ready" position. Get to know your cat and how they like to interact with you.

When scheduling playtime, try to choose the same time every day. Cats like routine and feel more secure when they know what to expect. Look at your schedule and work patterns. Find a time when you're not too worn out to play and devote that time to your cat's needs.

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Choosing the Right Cat Toys

You may believe all cats play the same way. Is there such a thing as the "right" cat toy? Yes, there is.

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Considering a Cat's Preferences

Cats have individual personalities and preferences. When choosing a toy, you must know what your cat wants. If you're familiar with your cat, this isn't difficult. However, if you adopt a cat from a shelter, determining what they like may take trial and error.

This is a basic rule of parenting. If you have a tomboy daughter, you don't buy her a dollhouse for Christmas. Various toy options exist for different ages, from kittens to adults to senior cats. Each age group requires a different viewpoint.

A kitten, for example, doesn't respond to catnip. They also tend to chew things. The toy you get must withstand their little teeth biting into it. Rubber KONG toys or durable stuffed toys may work well. The toy must not be too big for them to handle or scare them.

A senior cat sometimes has tooth pain, so a rubber toy is not ideal. If they have joint pain, climbing and running may be difficult. They need senior cat toys that allow them to expend energy in limited amounts. A senior cat may also have diminished vision, so get toys that appeal to their other senses. A toy that makes noise helps them identify where it is. A catnip or treat-dispensing toy allows them to hunt for it using their nose.

Within the broad range of adult cats, there are still varying personalities and play styles to think about. While most adult cats respond to catnip toys, others don't. One cat may go wild over laser toys, but another couldn't care less.

Safety Considerations

For those cats who are chewers, safety is an important issue. Besides durability, think about the materials used. Are they non-toxic? No toy is indestructible, so you must assume your cat can find a way to tear it apart. If they do, is the material inside safe?

There are toys without stuffing. If catnip fills the toy, that's better than some other kinds of filling. Catnip is safe for cats to eat and even has a calming effect on many cats.

If the toy has small parts, letting them play with it is not necessarily bad. You just need to be aware that a piece may come loose. For this reason, always monitor your cat when they play with it.

If your cat tries to eat pieces of the toy, they might choke or swallow it. Hard, jagged pieces may damage their throat or become lodged in their digestive tract, requiring surgery. You want to avoid that.

When your cat's toy becomes worn, some companies offer replacement parts. This is especially true of most wand toys with lures. The clasp on the end allows you to change lures when necessary.

You can repair some toys if you know how to sew. Your cat may rip open a plush toy, but a simple stitching job extends the toy's useful life and saves you money.

Look at the type of material used in a toy and not just the price. The saying "you get what you pay for" usually holds true. If you find an inexpensive (cheap) product, they likely use low-quality materials that are easily torn or broken.

Using Treats and Catnip Toys

You probably hear of dog trainers using treats for teaching commands and tricks. You use them for felines in the same way. Cats are intelligent but sometimes difficult to please or motivate. Find a treat your cat enjoys, then use it in their training to enhance their mental processes.

Some interactive cat balls allow you to insert treats that fall out when your cat plays with them. After some trial and error, they learn how to get what they want.

Many plush toys are catnip toys. If your cat isn't stimulated by the plush toy alone, get one that contains catnip. Though many cats don't respond to catnip until they reach six months to a year old, most adult cats love it.

Be aware that overexposure to catnip may cause a tolerance to its effects. Limit your cat's playtime with their catnip toys and switch them out with other toys. If your cat becomes immune to the power of catnip, silvervine is an alternative that produces similar effects.

Wands and Balls and Puzzles, Oh My!

Cat toys are an important part of an indoor cat's health. They stimulate their mental faculties to stave off dementia, allow the expression of hunting instincts, and keep them from becoming bored and destructive.

Toys also get your cat moving. They chase, jump, pounce, and kick as they practice preying on these moving objects. This physical activity prevents obesity, diabetes, and related health concerns. They also foster an important bond between you and your feline friend.

If you want to form a close companionship with your pet, discover their preferences and get a toy that meets your cat's desires. There are plenty of toy options out there. From wands to balls to puzzles, they all give you a chance to interact with your cat. Click on one of the links in this article to read reviews about various toys cats love.

Make safety your top priority when searching for the perfect toy. Choose a toy appropriate for your cat's age, abilities, and health issues. Get a few toys and play with your cat. See for yourself the benefits that follow.

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