Play Therapy for Cats
By Jackson Galaxy
It seems odd to put "play" together with "therapy." After all, 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 is fine. 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.
Art has a great relationship with his feline companion, Mouse. That is, except around dinnertime every day. Even though Art watches around the corners to see where Mouse might be lurking, he's still almost always surprised as Mouse dashes out and ambushes Art's ankles—sometimes viciously, according to Art.
Art takes Mouse's actions to mean that he is becoming suddenly territorial, seeing Art as a competitor for the turf they have shared peacefully for so many years.
What Art is actually seeing is a common problem called "play aggression." Like all other cats, Mouse spends the majority of his day sleeping, storing up energy for "the hunt," which his natural body clock is programmed to start at dusk and dawn. Art works ten-hour days, comes home, eats dinner, and relaxes in front of the TV. It is around that time, literally like clockwork, that Mouse begins his hit-and-run attacks on Art's legs. We call this behavior "play aggression," because it is actually pent-up energy related to a cat's play/prey drive. This energy must be let out. Mouse is like an energetic balloon, and he's simply trying not to pop! Art's ankles, then, represent prey to Mouse, just like a critter scurrying across the floor that he can practice his best hunting moves on.
How do we resolve this problem? As in overstimulation aggression (discussed last month) Art cannot send mixed signals. Is it okay to let Mouse jump onto the bed and attack Art's fingers or toes while they are underneath the covers, but then get upset when he ambushes Art's ankles? Of course not. It is the same hunting behavior, directed at an inappropriate target.
Again as with overstimulation aggression, play aggression requires play therapy! The idea is to ritualize play, to let the air out of the cat's energetic balloon on a predictable basis, and to guide his instincts toward "acceptable victims." In Mouse's case, it also reinforces the importance of interactive vs. remote toys. With the introduction of an interactive toy (defined generally as a toy in which you are attached to one end while the cat is playing with the other, like a wand and feather toy), he will experience aerobic activity at a safe distance from Art's body, and satisfy his basic hunting needs. The ritualizing aspect—that is, performing the therapy at the same time each day means that Mouse gets his jollies out exactly when he needs them out. His body clock demands the activity, and play therapy is a simple, effective way to satisfy that desire
Overstimulation (Petting-Related) Aggression
Wendy and her cat Nala are relaxing on the couch, Wendy absently stroking a half-sleeping Nala while she watches TV. This goes on for ten minutes or so, and suddenly Nala whips around toward Wendy's innocent hand and sinks her teeth into it. Wendy yells, equal parts disbelief and pain, and noisily banishes Nala from her lap, swatting her on the rear as she runs off, her tail and body low to the floor.
This is an examples of overstimulation, or petting-related, aggression. It is one of the most common sources of feline-human miscommunication, and often has frustrating, many times bloody, results. Wendy interprets Nala's sudden turn in human emotional terms, as if Nala was telling Wendy with a purr one moment how much she adored her and the next second, "I hate you!"
In order to understand how to solve the problem, we must first understand it from a cat's-eye view. This involves seeing your cat for what he or she is, a natural predator, as well as prey for bigger predators.
In the case of overstimulation or petting-induced aggression, there are many theories. One in particular that may help us understand the cat's psyche suggests that Nala floats in and out of consciousness, like a kitten being groomed by her mother. Suddenly, she pops back in, with her natural fight/flight response confused by the feeling of confinement. She bites, or grabs briefly with all four paws, then immediately disengages, hopping off the couch to groom herself, a self-calming behavior. There is also a theory of physiological response; slow- and fast- acting touch receptors get their signals crossed, essentially turning the initial feeling of pleasure to pain. There are others theories as well, but the gist is that Nala had no intention of biting Wendy; it is a sudden impulse that is really not within the cat's control. It then becomes Wendy's job to recognize the impending attack and head it off at the pass, which we will discuss.
How do we resolve this problem? First, Wendy must be careful to not send mixed signals. She cannot expect to be able to pet Nala's tummy, knowing she's going to "get it," just because she can't resist how soft her fur is. Nor can Wendy say that Nala putting her mouth on Wendy's hand softly is acceptable. Nala cannot be expected to make a fine distinction between what sort of tooth pressure is okay and what isn't. The rule must be that no biting is allowed, ever. Consistency on our part is key towards helping our cats understand a certain measure of right from wrong.
Another common theme in resolving these forms of aggression is the use of regular play therapy. You can read more about play therapy in our free article "Play Therapy Every Day"! The idea is to ritualize play, to let the air out of the cat's energetic balloon on a predictable basis, and to guide the cat's hunting instincts towards "acceptable victims." For Nala, play therapy can help relax her later on in the evening when Wendy likes their "cuddle-up time." If the air is regularly released from the balloon, Nala's sense of vulnerability toward touch and her heightened sense of fight/flight may be greatly eased.
That's not to say that play will be the cure-all for Nala. Wendy also has to learn Nala's touch threshold in order to succeed. It's like the old commercial, "how many licks does it take to get to the middle of a tootsie pop? One . . . two . .. three . . . CRUNCH . . . . Three!" Well, in this case, we want to make sure there is no crunch. Knowing that Nala can only stand to be petted for 10 minutes means stopping well before that limit — at 6 or 8 minues. Or it may be timed by number of strokes, rather than minutes. In either case, Wendy needs to learn how to read Nala's body language when she says, "I'm getting irritated," to avoid crunch time. Specifically, we're looking for: turned back or flattened ears; rippling skin down the spine; dilated eyes; or tail twitching that escalates to whipping. These signs mean: cease and desist. Depending on the severity of the specific cat's overstimulation, either stop petting, or simply stand up and let the cat roll off your lap. No repercussions here; there's no reason to punish Nala for being overstimulated. Just end the session, and let some time pass before starting a new one.
Accepting human touch is a learned behavior, not a natural one, and some cats may be more naturally reactive than others. Further, Nala may have missed out on vital human interaction during her early socialization period of kittenhood, so slow desensitization toward touch may be in order. This means counting the strokes before Nala gets antsy. Let's say it's five. Keep it at four, or even three, praising her, and then stopping. Do this for at least a week. Add a stroke every few days after, as tolerated. If she doesn't tolerate adding strokes, remember that keeping petting to the head and neck area is usually tolerated better. Stay away from the rear, tummy, and full body strokes for cats that are easily overstimulated.
Many hypersensitive cats benefit greatly from flower essence therapy. SpiritEssence offers many formulas to help with behavioral issues. In this case, "Feline Training" will help adjust to the new lessons of play therapy, while using "Stress Stopper" during the petting desentization sessions will help to bring a cat like Nala's energy "off the ceiling."
Finally, remember if biting occurs, or the dreaded all-four-paw wraparound, don't struggle or try to pull away. Instead, go completely limp and give a sharp "OUCH!" This will distract the cat verbally, and at the same time not trigger the instinctual prey drive. If you stiffen or struggle, your hand resembles prey even more. Above all, don't yell or punish your cat! It will frustrate them further, effectively infusing them with even more negative energy, and it will probably not make you feel too good, either.
If your cat has overstimulation or petting-related aggression, always have a remote toy handy. Remote toys include sparkle balls, furry mice ,a rolled up sock if nothing else is at hand something you can have in your pocket. At the moment the inappropriate behavior begins, throw the remote toy as a distraction, and to re-focus the cat's attention. Essences may also be helpful.
Your job is to understand a cat's basic motivation so that it's not misinterpreted, learn basic body signals so that you can effectively anticipate and thwart an attack, and redirect that energy. Be proactive! You and your cat will be much happier that way!