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We've been living with a rescue cat (~2 years old) for about a year now. He's really loving, relaxed, and loves food; but he seems quite uninterested in/upset by play.

He generally won't attack/stalk/chase toys, laser pointers, scraps of fabric, our hands: anything really. At one point, we got him to play with something like a piece of string, which went okay at first, but quickly he seemed to become upset by it, hissing and growling. After that he overgroomed for a while, so we haven't really tried to play with him since.

I'm definitely not interested in trying to force him to play at all - if I never have to buy another overpriced cat toy, I certainly won't complain! My worry is just that his life seems extremely monotonous, he just eats and sleeps. I'm wary of anthropomorphising him here, but I would have thought he needs more than this to have a fulfilling life?

My other concern is that his lack of physical activity might be unhealthy. He really doesn't move much at all during the day in the grand scheme of things, when I compare him to cats who can happily engage in rough-and-tumble for hours at a time. His health doesn't seem to have been affected by this at all, he's a healthy weight, but could this be a concern long-term?

So I suppose my question is: What can I do to give my cat a more varied lifestyle (if such a thing is actually necessary!)? And if he needs more physical activity, how can I encourage this without upsetting him?

Standard disclaimer that he's been to the vet a few times over the course of living with us, and their don't appear to be any medical concerns.

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    Welcome to pets.SE! Did the vet also looked for pain in movement? It need to be excluded that the cat has pain while moving and so avoids it. Jun 26 at 7:06
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    @Allerleirauh Thank you! The vet hasn't mentioned noticing any pain in movement, but also it's not something we thought to ask for, and I know it's often difficult to recognise in cats, so that could be a possibility. Is there anything I can do to try to assess if that could be the issue before booking an appointment for him?
    – ouroboring
    Jun 26 at 11:37
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    One of my cats isn’t a fan of toys either, but he loves climbing things. Cat trees, or wall-mounted shelves and sisal poles, appear to give him all the exercise and enrichment he wants—and a place to safely keep an eye on my more active cat.
    – StephenS
    Jun 26 at 15:13
  • I had this problem for years with my current cat. When she was younger she seemed to have absolutely no interest in playing at all but she grew into it. If your cat is more active at a certain time of day then that's the best time to try play. Jun 26 at 19:22
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    What toys have you tried? Balls (hard, soft, fluffy, jingly, crinkle, sisal, fur, etc)? "Prey" (fur mice, faux fur mice, birds with and without real feathers)? Kickers (different sizes, with and without catnip)? Cloth toys (regular, catnip-marinated, catnip-filled, with catnip pockets)?
    – Allison C
    Jun 28 at 14:06

4 Answers 4

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One simple idea is to hide some dry cat food all around the places he frequents.

Some people just throw a handful of cat food into the room and let their cats collect it. Others place food on the platforms of cat trees, shelves, open segments of cupboards and other places their cat is allowed to roam. You could also involve an empty cardboard box with 1 or 2 cat-sized holes in it.

Please remember to subtract the amount of hidden food from his daily portion or you risk overfeeding him.

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Some cats are extremely particular about the kind of toys they like, and completely disinterested in others. It may be something as simple as you haven't found the "right" toy yet. The variety available in cat toys these days can be surprising, with a very wide range of appeal and play-action.

Balls: The most familiar version of these would be the hard plastic "jingle balls" that are well known for keeping people awake at night, but they certainly aren't the only ones. You can also find rubbery bouncy ones, plush ones (with and without catnip), ones with feathers sewn into them, ones made of (real or faux) fur, "pompon" style ones (which are often "marinated" in catnip), crinkly Mylar ones, ones wrapped in sisal fabric, mini tennis ball ones, rattle ones, electronic ones that move on their own, ones that make prey sounds... there's a practically infinite variety of balls available, all with different motions and appeals. One of mine absolutely loves to chase jingle balls, another likes tossing Mylar ones around, and the third doesn't care about them at all.

Prey: Best personified by the "small fur-covered mouse," there's a wide range of these available as well. You can find them in various sizes, using cloth, felt, or real and faux fur (real is often harder to find, but seems to go over better with cats, to whom they smell more like "real" prey). They can have no, short, long, wide, string, sisal, or feather tails, likely with more options. They can have hard plastic bodies or soft plush ones. They can even have electronics to make prey sounds or move around the floor on their own. Here, one of my cats absolutely adores just about any furry mouse (especially with long/wide tails to grab onto and carry them around), another will bat around the small ones, and the third doesn't care.

String/Interactive: We all know this one too, the "toy tied to a string tied to a stick" variety, which is also a very wide range. You can have ribbons with no toys, wires for dragging the toys, regular strings, or a spring on a base. The toys on the end can be mice, feathers, ribbons, tulle bundles, birds, bells, plush objects, and so on. I even have one that's basically entirely all springs, made of coiled material that bounces in a very appealing manner. All three of my cats love every variety of string toy, especially the bouncy spring one.

Plush/Kickers: I'm grouping these together as kickers are a subset of the plush grouping. These are various stuffed toys the cat can bat and toss around; plush are typically smaller, where kickers are larger and longer, allowing the cat to grab the toy with their front paws and kick with their back legs. Kickers typically come in fleece or furry fabrics, often in a basic "sausage" shape, though sometimes shaped like a fish or animal (while still maintaining the "long and thin" shape that makes them easy to grab and kick). Plush have more variety, coming in a near infinite variety of shapes (mice, birds, squirrels, tacos, gym bags, sushi, wine bottles, Santa, butterflies--if you can name it, someone's probably made it as a cat toy). They can be stuffed with just stuffing, stuffing plus catnip, just catnip, crinkly materials, or mesh pockets you fill with catnip yourself. They might have feathers, ribbons, bells, mesh, or rubbery bits sewn on for additional appeal or benefit (the rubbery bits are often marketed for dental hygiene). Like other toys, they may or may not contain electronics to have them make sounds or move on their own. These are some of the less favorite options around here, though they do like ones with large catnip pockets a bit more (and one will sit and lick the pure-catnip ones until I take them away from him).

Lasers: There's not a ton of variety here; these are basically laser pointers, or "auto lasers" that shine the light around randomly; I'd stick to the handheld type, to help prevent shining the laser in the cat's eyes. The laser is generally a hit here, when I can find it.

Furniture: These can be the classic carpeted "cat tree," but also would include beds, shelves, houses (often made of cardboard with corrugated sections to scratch at), scratching posts, pop-up tents, cubbies, and even crinkle sacks. While most might not necessarily seem like "play" items, running up and down a tree, "attacking" a post, or pouncing out of a house are all ways I've seen cats "play" with these items. One of mine in particular loves charging and attacking her scratching posts, and frequently two of them will chase each other up and down a tree.

Other: There's so many other options that don't fit into the above categories. Of ones I've seen or purchased recently, there are sisal rings, rubber "dental" rings, plastic "springs," fabric-covered flexible coils (springy and more "shapeable" like a pipe cleaner), "pull-aparts" (bundles of string shoved into a wrapper; they can't be "pulled apart" so much as to become a danger, but they're designed to be somewhat deconstructed), mesh tubing balls/bundles, captured ball toys (tracks, customizable tracks, rings, and boxes with holes in them, all hiding one or more ball that can't be removed), and treat dispensers. Each of these has had various successes with my cats, some of them being effectively duds and others being clear hits.

Trash: Yes, literally things you might think are garbage. Paper grocery bags (remove any handles, as their heads can get stuck), shipping boxes, and crumpled paper are all very easy ones to offer up. You might also try removing the safety ring from a jug of milk, water, or a similar product and tossing that on the floor for them; this is typically a hit (and I've even seen toys designed to mimic them in the past). Plastic caps from bottles can similarly be a lot of fun (be sure they're clean of anything that might be risky, and never use one from a toxic product). One of mine is obsessed with the crinkly shrink wrap seals on bottles of supplements, and always runs to grab them from me when I open a new bottle.

If you do continue to try to find the category of toy he actually likes, and don't want your house cluttered with all the "duds," set aside a box to drop them into and, once you've accumulated a good amount, offer them to a local rescue. Since you mentioned that he loves food, I'd suggest starting out with a treat dispensing toy or two to see if those have some appeal. You can also purchase budget multi-toy packs that can cover more of a range of styles to test them out more cheaply. And trash, of course, is always free! At his age, I'd expect to see more play activity, so it may just take a little more testing out to find the best option.

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Not all cats play. And whether or how much a cat plays can vary through their life and the seasons. Out 8yo went through a phase of “bah, humbug” for a few years and has recently rediscovered the joy of playing, going through a phase of “crazy teen antics”, even batting at random blades of grass, seemingly just because. I find that (him being an outdoor/indoor cat) temperature and seasonal changes have significant influence and learned (not just from him) that change is normal.

What I do in the phases when I notice that he needs stimulation (e.g. being grounded after an injury but too well to simply sleep it off) is clicker training. He can’t do many tricks, but at least a few, and refreshing/repeating the “old” ones is often already enough, no need for “new” tricks. (That may be different for a cat where you constantly offer this kind of training unlike we with our on and off cycle.) As it’s mental stimulation, it’s surprisingly tiring and a short period of training will exhaust the cat for a long time. Of course this can be connected with more exercise-ish tricks, like jumping onto or over something, walking through a kind of obstacle course or fetching an object. The options are nearly unlimited and if you need ideas there’s a wealth of websites and books about how clicker training works.

Watch your cat closely, a cat’s attention span is pretty short. The clues of “enough” are subtle, like looking away. Ideally stop while your cat is still eager to train and with a trick he already knows well, ensuring success. Thus training is “fun” and not a chore.

One caveat:
If you are used to the super quick execution of a command seen in some dogs, note that cats can be seemingly slow to respond. Where my dog simply plops down his rear when I say “sit”, the cat will take his sweet time, looking at me, sometimes left and right and back at me again, seemingly pondering the request, and then gingerly sit down.

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There are ways to provide excitement and even encourage exercise for your indoor cat that do not involve toys or playtime.

Sometimes called television for cats, making sure that there are good vantage points to look out the windows and hanging a bird feeder is a great source of entertainment and can keep your cat interested for hours just watching.

This plays into their hunting instincts, which is not only satisfied by catching prey, but also by simply observing prey.

This is fairly low cost and effort, and having multiple windows where there is something exciting to watch might even elicit some exercise as the cat will want to investigate if the other window has something going on as well.

Other important senses for the cat are hearing and smelling, and a great way to provide quality of life for an indoor cat is a properly cat-proofed open window. This is a bit more effort and needs to be done in a secure way, as especially tilted windows can lead to fatal injuries, but allows them to participate in the life outside in a more complete way even from inside the house.

Additionally, since unlike us humans cats like to make full use of vertical space, allowing access to shelves and cupboards, having enough climbing opportunities in the house and plenty of vantage points is a good way to drastically increase the effective room in your house for an indoor cat.

While we think about square feet on the floor as far as the size of a room is concerned, for your cat this will be square feet on all accessible levels, and increasing the effective size of the territory this way can drastically improve quality of life.

And since even in a perfectly clean house there is always a spider or two in some corner close to the ceiling or a moth that found its way in sitting somewhere on a wall high up, having these places accessible to some extend will even provide opportunity to actively hunt prey.

If you are not particular about moths (or your cat killing insects for fun) and your cat finds them exciting, with a cat-proofed window you could even let them in on purpose from time to time to provide some entertainment, just leave the cat-proofed window open and the lights on when it is dark outside.

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