Is your senior cat inactive? While senior dogs often get walked daily (a great way to keep them alert, happy and in shape, even if they get other outside time or are little city canines) senior kitties often spend a lot of their time resting and being under-stimulated.
When my senior kitty, Maurice, became less active, I was concerned. Although he does have several physical issues such as hyperthyroidism, irritable bowel disease and spinal arthritis, he was generally pretty active and youthful for an older cat. I made sure to get him checked thoroughly by the vet, be consistent about his medications and consider that the weakness in his hind legs from the arthritis made him cautious. I was careful to feed him a high quality diet and supplement it with probiotics and glucosamine and chondritin to help with his digestion and arthritic joints. However, I knew that he greatly enjoyed running and playing and had become even more interested in getting my attention after our other cats passed away. While he’s not the most chatty communicator, I could tell he was becoming bored and unfocussed, having “senior moments” of forgetting we had fed him or why he was meowing (loudly, at 4:00 AM.) He just felt “blah.” So, I decided to stop just worrying about him and figure out ways to get him safely active.
Playing with your cat both keeps your cat active and builds the bond between you. Many people love to play with kittens, but don’t realize that play is important to older cats, too. It stimulates them both mentally and physically, and can also help motivate finicky eaters to eat. Even outdoor cats, as they get older, may prefer to stay in more and thus get less stimulation. Often, the best way to appeal to your cat’s hunting instincts and get her to play is with toys.
Which cat toys are best? The answer is: whatever toys your cat is enthusiastic about playing with! As long as the toy is safe, non-toxic and used with proper supervision, it’s fair game. When choosing a toy, inspect it for durable construction and make sure it has no loose parts that could be choking/ingestion hazards. “Google eyes,” loose strings and crinkly or dangling parts can all be dangerous. If there is a chance your cat may play with a toy without you, soft toys without attachments or strong, hard ball toys are best. If a human soft toy is rated safe for 2-3 year olds, it should be alright for cats.
Commercial string-type dangle toys with handles such as fleece strips and feather teasers can be safer, but they should be put away where cats can’t get them when you’re away. Some years ago before I knew better, I learned this lesson personally by finding rainbow-decorated poo in the litter. One of my cats had found her favourite brightly coloured fleece string toy and chewed it to bits! We were very lucky that she didn’t ingest longer lengths, and they passed through her system without damaging her.
Another good toy is a laser pointer. Most cats will find chasing the moving red dot stimulating. Whenever I visit my mother, her cat Annie urges me excitedly to take out the laser pointer – it’s our special game. However, be careful not to shine the laser into your cat’s eyes, as it can damage them.
Another way to add interest is to try a new toy, or use an old one in a different way. Some cats prefer string-type toys to remain swinging above them, some are attracted to the toy being pulled in quick movements like a bug running on the floor, others may like playing peek-a-boo with a toy you hide then reveal, and others may need actual physical contact – even putting the toy directly onto the cat – to get them going. I’ve even found a simple trick like increasing or decreasing the size and weight of the teaser at the end of the string can make a big difference; sometimes just tying knots in the end works. Try different things and observe your cat closely as you play. What movements catch her attention? Does she like the laser pointer to move in squiggly lines or straight; short, long, fast, slow or even up the wall? Does your cat want you close by, even holding the toy, or does she prefer playing catch, having it tossed to her, or playing alone? Take time to really see what your cat likes and encourage her with a playful tone and affection. You may find that her interest in play and exercise returns.
Finally, after some searching, I found a toy that worked just right for him: a small, soft catnip-filled mouse, which includes both an elastic string for pulling and dangling play and an electronic noisemaker that makes a squeaking noise. I considered it a “multi-pronged approach” toy, in that if the mouse-like or string-toy element of it didn’t attract him, maybe the catnip or the squeaking would. It turns out that approach worked. The additional size and elements make it much easier for him to see and play with than the old string and laser toys. He enjoys batting at it and chasing it in short bursts when I move it, and will even stalk and grab it himself sometimes when I leave it still but near me. I was unsure about the noisemaker, but it actually attracts him and is not as annoying as I suspected (still, another reason it gets put away between uses!) Most importantly, he has become happier, more energetic and playful, and even seems to be seeing somewhat better and having less “senior moments.”