Cat Exercise: Do You Really Need to Exercise Your Cat?

Cats can benefit greatly from owners encouraging them to move. Physical activity is essential for overall wellness and maintaining a healthy weight. More than half of all cats living in the United States are considered overweight or obese. Inactivity may also contribute to problem behaviors evolving from boredom.

Overweight Cats are at Risk for:

  • Shortened lifespans
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Liver disease

Cats Without Enough Varied Stimuli May:

  • Overeat
  • Oversleep
  • Over groom
  • Engage in troublesome activities that may be damaging to themselves, owners, and property

Cats who play as kittens may be more active as adult cats. Providing high-action toys that move quickly and unpredictably, such as ping pong balls, are excellent choices for engaging young cats in play.

Several non-toy items are also irresistible to small cats, such as plastic milk carton rings or small kid toys that can scoot or roll across the floor. Be careful leaving out string or yarn as they may accidentally be ingested and become linear foreign bodies, which is life threatening.

Getting an older cat to move may be challenging, depending on the individual cat’s personality, temperament, and life experiences. Animal behaviorists encourage using a cat’s natural predatory instincts to arouse behavior. Most cats are driven by a desire to hunt, pounce, and feed.

Everyday Motions

Getting cats moving as part of their everyday routine may be as simple as increasing their vertical space. Consider introducing cat trees or shelves on which they can climb. A cat tree in front of a sunny window or a well-placed outdoor bird feeder may be all the motivation kitty needs to climb right to the top.

Use the space you have to encourage movement. Feed the cat in different areas of the home. This can be done by moving the dish from the counter to the floor and back again or placing food upstairs and then downstairs. Some owners have found success feeding small amounts of food in different areas inside of a variety of toys designed to slowly release the food only when the toy is moved or pawed at by the cat.

Play Time

Cats are most likely to respond to toys that are novel, so rotate any toys meant for independent play and bring interactive toys out only during playtime. Catnip can also encourage some cats to get more active.

Cat with Toys

Independent Play Ideas

  • Place a cat tree near a window facing a bird feeder.
  • Set up a secure fish tank.
  • Open the curtains and let kitty watch the bugs or fireflies through a window or sliding glass door.
  • Supply floor toys such as balls, paper bags, boxes, etc.


Cats Play Fighting

Playmates can increase a cat’s activity. Both human and animal (cat or dog) playmates can get kitty moving. If you are introducing a new cat to the house, consider a kitten or consult resources on introducing adult cats to one another.

Fighting and problem behaviors are common results in this scenario. Not all dogs are cat-friendly and only some cats will tolerate a dog’s playful behavior. Proceed with caution when introducing new animal friends.

Interactive Play Ideas

  • Fishing pole type toys are a favorite of most cats. Be sure to mimic bird and rodent like motions to increase kitty’s interest.
  • Laser pointers are an easy way to get some cats to move. Make sure to jump it around, place to place, similar to the way a bug might move.
    • Note: Be careful using laser pointers around dogs as some may develop obsessive compulsive behaviors in response to the laser pointer.

Some cats will tolerate a harness and leash, but few will walk gamely alongside a strolling person. Most lie down and observe the great outdoors. This is great for mental health, but doesn’t contribute overly much to an exercise plan.

If you do choose to introduce a harness and leash, try to do so at an early age. If training an older cat to accept a harness, proceed slowly, carefully, and inside. Also, make sure to never leave the leash or harness on the cat unsupervised since it can quickly become a strangulation risk.

Additional Interventions for Obese or High-Energy Cats

Fat cat

Cats that are severely obese may benefit from the use of a treadmill. Underwater treadmills may be used to avoid overtaxing their joints. Depending on the cat, this can be quite an undertaking, and expert supervision from a trained physical therapist or rehabilitation expert is recommended.

Some cats with a high drive to exercise may be entertained through the use of a cat exercise wheel. These novel contraptions provide repetitive movement in a limited space, but are extremely expensive and some cats may choose to use them as an overpriced sun spot. Know your cat and your budget before investing.

Even a few minutes of playtime and activity is beneficial for overweight and obese cats. For high-energy cats and kittens, try for interactive play of at least 15 minutes duration, two to three times daily, and provide plenty of independent play options.

Ideally, playtime should occur every day and some owners benefit most from encouraging their cats to exercise before bedtime. Playtime should end when the cat is done or when the playmate tires.

Cats that are extremely heavy should be introduced to exercise gradually to avoid over exertion and possible damage to joints. If your cat is severely obese, you may wish to consult with a veterinary nutritionist and or rehabilitation specialist who may be able to offer additional means to help safely remove the weight.

Obesity can greatly diminish a cat’s life span and quality of life. Inactivity can often result in behaviors that are troubling and potentially harmful even in cats of healthy weights. Encouraging active movement during the day and at playtime may significantly improve your cat’s well-being and may also lead to further enjoyment of your pet.

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