Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
    I adopted a stray cat from my local shelter. Although he is barely more than a kitten, perhaps a year or two old, he never seems to play. Can you suggest some toys to bring out the kitten in him?
-- I. M. Playful

Truman, at age 16, is still playful.

Dear Playful,
    Sometimes stray cats spend so much time surviving they do not learn to play. But, if you work with him, he will learn to play.
    First, a few cautions: Yarn and other string-like materials are not appropriate as toys. Too often the cat will chew off pieces and swallow them. This can become a medical emergency if the yarn/string obstructs the cat's intestines. Also, commercial toys with bells on them or other loose pieces are dangerous. Most cats will swallow any pieces that come off toys during play. It is also inappropriate to use your hands or feet as toys. Your kitty will not understand that he is hurting you when he bites or claws in the act of play. Later, when he is playful and you are not, he may again attack hands and feet. You can avoid getting hurt and avoid teaching him a bad habit if you never allow him to view any part of you as a toy.
    One of the best toys for a kitty who is unfamiliar with playing or who is just plain shy, is the Kitty Tease (The Galkie Co., PO Box 20, Harrogate TN 37752, 615/869-8138.) This is a fiber glass pole with 50 pound test braided Dacron line attached. At the end of the string is a piece of denim. The toy is designed to be safe for interactive play, but should be put away when play time is over. There are lots of ways to play with your cat with this toy. You can drag the string along the floor while he chases or you can make it hop and watch your cat jump to catch it. Your cat will tell you which movement of the toy he finds most intriguing. If your cat is not used to playing, you may have to "annoy" him with the toy to get his attention at first. Dangling it right in front of his face is sure to get a reaction if you are patient.
    Catnip toys are also good because they attract the cat with their scent. Be careful that the toys are "cat safe." Much like toys for babies, they should not have any pieces your cat can get loose and swallow. You don't want play time to turn into a trip to the emergency clinic! If you want to make your own catnip toys, you can sew up any size or shape of material remnant with polyester fiberfill and a bit of catnip inside. The best materials are ones that can stand up to clawing, such as denim.

Most cats can't read.

    Paper bags left open on the floor are perennial play favorites. Kitties like little hidey holes and a paper bag is a perfect one. If you have more than one cat, be sure to stick around after opening the sack. You may see a rousing game of hide-and-seek or what-is-that-thing-in-the-bag.
    Some other good, and inexpensive, toys are ping-pong balls and pipe cleaners. Both are very light weight and go far when tapped by a kitty paw. You can find pipe cleaners at craft stores. Just twist one around your index finger to form a curlicue, then toss it toward your cat. Some cats bat them around; others fetch them back to you; still others straighten them out.
    Eventually, your kitty will find his own favorite toys. Just be sure to check each new toy item for safety before letting your cat play with it. If it can be swallowed or torn up and swallowed, it is not safe.

Have fun!
-- Alice

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