What's so appealing about a piece of string? And why would your cat rather play with an empty paper bag than the toy that came in it? Blame Mother Nature.
Cats are masters at finding fun in everyday objects. From bottle caps and bits of cellophane wrapping to your kids' stray Legos and other treasures lurking under couch cushions, they will play with just about anything they can get their paws on. It's part instinct and part exploration.
Your feline's favorite playthings tap into powerful predatory instincts. To them, that piece of string looks like a small snake slithering about. A pen cap quickly can become elusive prey. And that grocery bag is the perfect hiding spot for an ambush.
"Cats and kittens enjoy games of chase, pounce and ambush. These instincts are hot-wired into the cat, and the cat's behavior is triggered by motion," explains Amy Shojai, certified animal behavior consultant and author of 23 pet care books, including "Complete Kitten Care."
Any small object that tumbles, rolls or soars through the air is fair game, and if it crinkles, rattles or rustles, all the better. However, cats can face serious injury when "hunting" household objects.
"Cats love things that move and make noise, whether it is a rolling marble on a wood floor or a ball of yarn," says Steven Spitz, CEO of Big Apple Pet Supply. "While cats will go after most things that stir up their predatory instincts, there are definitely things that are not safe to play with. It's all fun and games until your cat decides to eat the very thing he was playing with."
*All Strung Up
It's the quintessential cat toy, but string is a dangerous plaything. Cats can't resist the wiggle of rope, yarn, ribbon and cording, but these tempting toys pose a very serious hazard to unsuspecting felines.
"String is a favorite target because it moves in a variety of ways -- fast, slow, slithering like a snake or disappearing under objects. It's also an interactive toy with a person at the other end, which is appealing to many social cats," Shojai says. "However, string-type material, if swallowed, can kill a cat."
String can easily become wrapped around the base of the cat's tongue, damage soft tissues and block the intestinal tract -- and that means emergency surgery. Should your cat accidentally swallow string, do not attempt to pull it out. Get to the vet pronto!
"String or ribbon as a cat toy is an accident waiting to happen," Spitz says. "It can spell disaster for a cat's intestines -- and a cat with a string wrapped around its neck is not a pretty sight."
If you choose to satisfy your cat's string obsession with teaser-style toys, do so only under close supervision. They may be designed to foil felines, but crafty cats can chew through elastic, feather boas and foil ribbon in no time. When playtime is over, put them away -- and out of reach -- immediately.
Cats adore small nooks and crannies. Whether a cat is taking refuge for a quick nap or hiding out while "hunting," nothing beats an empty paper bag or cardboard box. However, these seemingly innocuous items pose some risk.
"Cats use ambush as a hunting technique," Shojai explains. "Small boxes, bags and other cavelike openings draw cats like a magnet because they can see out and supervise their world while remaining hidden and thus safe. Of course, when a cat is hidden in a bag, others might injury kitty by stepping on him or otherwise moving the bag."
To prevent injury, never let cats play with plastic bags, which can cause suffocation, and always remove the handles from paper bags before your cat pounces in.
"Bags with handles can strangle or, at the very least, terrify a cat that gets the strap caught around his neck," Shojai warns. "These cats race around the house with the bag 'chasing' the cat."
Corrugated cardboard boxes are equally intriguing -- and a great place to sharpen claws before the kill -- but before your feline friend moves in, remove loose packing tape and labels, and be sure your cat can fit through any openings comfortably. Don't let cats play in boxes that once held cleaning products or other chemicals. Cats often chew the edges, and the residual toxins could make them sick.
Cats love chasing tiny stuffed animals, especially those that look and feel like the real thing, but when it comes time to subdue their "prey," the filling inside can spell big trouble.
"Do not use toys with nutshells or Styrofoam beads as fillers," Spitz cautions. "Nutshells are hard and pointed, and if a hole develops in the toy, they can cause cuts in your cat's mouth and much worse if swallowed. Styrofoam beads are outright dangerous and can be toxic to your cat."
Instead, look for toys stuffed with nontoxic fiberfill or catnip. When stuffed toys show signs of wear from all that batting and scratching, toss them out. Shredded fabric and loose parts pose choking hazards.
It can be quite annoying if your cat constantly knocks delicate figurines from the display shelf or steals your jewelry from the bedside table, but it can be downright dangerous for him.
"Cats love to play what I call 'gravity experiments' by tapping objects off high locations or playing pingpong with wads of paper," Shojai says. "The cat's paw pad is incredibly sensitive to temperature and texture. Similar to a human's sticking one toe in bath water as a test, pawing is the cat's way to test objects for safety, for suitability as prey or simply to play."
Such "gravity experiments" are great for honing hunting skills, until kitty topples something fragile.
"Depending on the object, the dangers include breaking the item and risking cut paws," Shojai says. "After they capture the object, many cats also indulge in bunny kicks and biting or chewing behavior with the toy. Swallowing pieces of the material can cause gastric upset and blockage or damage to the mouth and other internal structures."
Don't leave small objects lying about to tempt your cat, and keep dangerous or toxic items, such as glass jars and household cleaners, away from table edges. Instead, satisfy your cat's curiosity with small toys perched on his favorite toppling spot. Fur mice, crinkle balls and catnip jawbreakers are perfect to "experiment" with.
"Remember that anything within reach is a potential toy for your cat, to be pawed, clawed, bitten and swallowed," Shojai says. "Owners must kitten- and cat-proof toys and the house to protect their pets."