You may think that your cat plays because it is displaying infantile behavior and not quite growing out of babyhood, but nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s correct that cats do have a spirit of mischief and will sometimes engage in obvious teasing just for the fun of it. But most of the time, their play activities have much more to do with serious adult preoccupations, no matter how zestful and fun they are for the cat.
They play because they are hunters. That’s pretty much it. And they must learn their skills by whatever means they have. When they are small kittens, mamma cat can start teaching them some of the basics. But they will need to keep learning as they get older, and even once they know their stalking and hunting techniques, they have to work to stay in practice. They will at some point use virtually the same skills for fighting other cats as well, if it ever becomes necessary.
You’ve probably already experienced one of the most familiar (and rather shocking) occurrences for cat owners, when you’re in bed and just for a moment your toe twitches under the covers. Suddenly there’s that heart-stopping POUNCE! of the young cat, and those needle-sharp claws burst through the cover and into your foot. This is more than just a cat playing with toes. This is serious practice for that moment when the cat has gotten close to its unsuspecting prey and makes the big leap to catch it. The fact that it makes you scream is just a gratifying bonus.
Cat toys serve the similar purpose of giving the pet a chance to practice their skills and keep their muscles and senses toned, alert, and sharp. Even though cats have these hunting and stalking instincts, those only tell them what they should be doing. It’s up to the cat to learn the right skills to actually do it, and then keep them honed. So when the cat slowly stalks a mouse toy from across the floor, then bats it around, leaping and pouncing after it, or tossing it in the air and jumping to swat at it, the animal is staying in practice.
Some people believe this is even the reason behind that period late in the day or early morning when a cat seems to go a little mad, racing around the house like a wild thing. Since cats naturally are most active at twilight and in the morning, their hunting instincts activate at those times, increasing their energy levels. Their crazy racing around helps to dispel some of that instinctive energy.
The connection between play and hunting/fighting can also be seen when cats play-fight with each other. They exhibit similar body changes to when they are in a genuine fight with other cats – arching the back, fluffing out the fur, and turning sideways, all to make themselves appear larger – and yet this is just a mock battle and they are really only playing. They are basically sparring partners, practicing so that when a real fight comes along, they will be ready.
Cats do tease, and sometimes they do play apparently just for the fun of it. But even then, as they stalk and pounce and twist and turn and leap – they are always in training for that one moment when the bird is right there, just waiting for them.