introducing a kitten

Why Won’t My Cat Play With Me?

The joy of playing with your cat is second only to the joy of petting your cat! But what if your cat never wants to play? Is that something you can train it out of, or is it just part of your cat’s personality?

How can you get a cat to play with you? Try picking a new kind of toy, e.g. a feather; one that your cat hasn’t tried yet. When you find one your cat likes, stick with it; it will start to smell like your cat, so it will recognize the toy as its property and be more likely to play with it. You should also follow the three steps to successful play: wiggling the toy, moving the toy, and hiding the toy. Waiting for your cat to approach you will also up your rate of success when it comes to playing. Bear in mind that some cats are naturally more playful than others.

The guide below is split into two parts. The first part looks at why some cats are playful and why some cats aren’t, with reference both to your cat’s personality and your style of playing with them. Then, we’ll look at a few different methods you can try to finally get your cat to play with you!

Why Won’t My Cat Play With Me?

Having a cat that won’t play can be a surprisingly frustrating experience. That’s especially the case if you used to have a playful cat, but the cat you have now isn’t playful; or, if the cat used to be playful when it was younger, but became less so when it grew up.

So why doesn’t your cat want to play with you, even if you want it to?

If you want your cat to play, you first have to understand the purpose of play. That might sound boring, but it’s not—it’s actually a fascinating topic.

All cats play when they’re kittens. They play with their litter mates, and to a lesser extent, their mothers. Play peaks during the critical learning phase of a kitten’s development at just a few weeks of age. There are a few purposes to this play:

  • To learn how to fight. Kittens leap at each other, bat each other with their claws, chase each other, and try to pin each other down. While these behaviors are typically performed as play, they mirror real fighting between cats. And, of course, sometimes kittens really do fight!
  • To learn cat body language. Cats tell each other whether they’re fighting for real or just playing through body language. Kittens learn the difference through frequent play.
  • To learn how to hunt. Pouncing on prey, biting it by the neck and shaking it from side to side are all integral behaviors to hunting. Kittens learn this through play too.

Most cats still enjoy displaying these behaviors even when they grow up. So why might one cat play with you while another doesn’t?

You’re Playing With The ‘Wrong’ Toys

Not all cats have the same taste in toys. Some go wild for feathers while others love string. Some prefer playing with their owners, while others prefer toys that they can play with on their own; others still like playing with other cats. It’s possible that your cat would enjoy playing with a different toy much more than the ones you’re currently offering.

What can also have an effect is if your cat toys smell like another cat. Cats emit pheromones from lots of different parts of their bodies, including their cheeks. So, when a cat bites a toy, it leaves a small amount of pheromones behind. This makes the toy smell familiar to the cat, and the cat recognizes it as their property. But if the toy smells like another cat, your cat may be reluctant to play with it. It may therefore be a good idea if you have more than one cat to have separate toys for each of them.

You’re Playing With The Toys ‘Wrong’

It’s also possible that you aren’t giving your cat the best possible experience when it plays. That isn’t something you’re doing wrong; it’s just a reflection of the fact that you have to learn what your cat gets out of playing—like in the section above—and provide that.

Take playing with string as an example. You’ll already know that you can’t just put a piece of string in front of a cat and watch it play. You have to tempt it into playing with the string in one of a few ways, all of which relate to the real purposes of play (hunting):

  • Wiggling the string. This makes the string look alive. It looks quite a lot like a mouse’s tail!
  • Moving the string, staying still, then moving again. This mimics the way that mice move, especially when confronted by a predator. The mouse might freeze for a moment but then leap away as quickly as it can.
  • Hiding the string. Prey obviously hides from a predator. This also takes advantage of your cat’s natural curiosity.

It’s like playing pretend. A child doesn’t just look at its doll. They make the doll act in ways that a person would, or do things that a person would. If you don’t do the same with your cat’s toys, then you’re playing with them ‘wrong’.

Some Cats Are More Chilled Out Than Others (Cat Personalities)

Cats have personalities just like people do. While every cat is different, they all fall between two ends of a spectrum: lap cats that like to relax, and active cats that like to, well, stay active. If your cat is on the ‘relaxed’ end of this spectrum, then it won’t want to play as often as you might like. It may not play for as long as you like when it does play, or in the way that you might like.

There are ways to try and entice lap cats into playing; it’s rare for a cat to not want to play at all, ever. But if that’s your cat’s personality, you simply have to respect it.

Your Cat Is Having Fun Elsewhere

As stated above, most cats enjoy showing at least some play behaviors when they grow up. It’s possible that your cat is displaying these behaviors when you’re not around. There are a few ways this might be the case:

  • Your cat is hunting for rodents and birds outside. It doesn’t feel the need to hunt for toys because it hunts for real.
  • Your cat plays at night when you’re asleep. Cats are active at night, if not more active than during the day. Your cat may be making its own fun while you’re asleep.
  • Your cat may be playing with other cats when it’s outdoors. This isn’t common, as outdoor cats fight more than they get along, but it’s still possible.
  • Your cat is spending time with another family and playing with them!

With its need for play out of its system, your cat may not want to play with you.

Your Cat Might Be Ill

cat cube
Your cat could be under the weather, which would mean it doesn’t want to play.

Perhaps the most common symptom of ill health in cats is lethargy. Lethargy is where the cat doesn’t have the energy to do things it normally would do: things like playing, or even eating and moving. Lethargy gets worse as the condition gets worse, so it can start out only affecting superficial things like play, before severely affecting the cats life by stopping it from eating and drinking. As such, if your cat always used to play with you but now it won’t, it might be unwell.

Your cat could also be experiencing a health issue that directly affects its ability to play. It may be experiencing vision loss, e.g. through conjunctivitis or glaucoma. Or it may have experienced a soft tissue injury that stops it from leaping and pouncing; or, it may have an ingrown claw to stop it walking freely. Or it may just be in pain and in a foul mood.

To be clear, if your cat isn’t playing, you shouldn’t immediately assume that it’s unwell. But if you do suspect that your cat is experiencing ill health, you should take it to the vet as soon as possible.

How Can I Get My Cat to Play With Me?

So, know we know why your cat might not play with you… How do you make a cat play with you?

Can You Train a Cat to Play With You?

Cats have a reputation of being hard to train. But believe it or not, it can be done, and it can be remarkably effective.

The way that most people choose to train their cats is through shouting at them when they do something wrong, pulling them/pushing them/putting them somewhere, and just plain telling the cat what it should be doing i.e. No, you have to go in the litter tray! It’s pretty clear that this doesn’t work.

What does work is clicker training. Clicker training is where you use a handheld clicker device to catch the cat’s attention, and treats to reinforce behavior. Clicker training is how circus cats and other well-trained cats are trained. The idea is that since cats have a poor understanding of cause and effect, you have to find a way around that. By consistently making the clicking noise and feeding a treat every time your cat displays the behavior you want it to display, you build up that understanding.

This can be applied to playing. It’s not likely that this method will be an overnight success, as you would have to get your cat into playing mode, then break its concentration to give it a treat, then expect it to get back into playing mode again. That might be tough for your cat in a way that, say, learning to high-five isn’t.

Buy New Cat Toys!

The cat toys you’re trying to play with your cat with may be part of the problem. You can try changing them, and there’s a good chance you’ll see some results.

Feathers are almost always a hit. Part of the reason is that they can move unexpectedly when you’re playing with them. The tip of the feather can catch on things, and when it’s pulled away, the feather as a whole will make a jerky movement. Cats like sudden movements in the context of play. Your average feather is also just the right size to be played with. What makes feathers even more enticing for cats, though, is that they smell like birds. Cats use the sense of smell much more than they do their sense of sight, so that added layer of relevance can make feathers an even better kind of toy.

What might work is to visit a pet store and see what toys they have for cats. There are likely to be all sorts of toys that you haven’t tried yet, and there’s a good chance that one of them might tickle your cat’s sense of play. You should also try switching from owner-led playing to cat-led playing; your cat might much prefer playing with toys that it can play with on its own.

Catnip, Catnip, Catnip

On the topic of new toys, you should consider offering your cat some catnip. Catnip is a hallucinogen that produces euphoric effects in cats. In plain English, it makes cats see things that aren’t there and feel happy at the same time.

What’s amazing is that while catnip unquestionably has these effects, it’s not bad for your cat in any way. Repeated exposure doesn’t affect your cat’s health negatively, nor does it cause any kind of addiction, nor withdrawal when it’s taken away. If you leave catnip available for your cat at all times, it will self-regulate its exposure to the plant, so will only ‘use’ it every once in a while. And, of course, it makes your cat respond differently to toys and play.

There are a few ways to expose your cat to catnip. One is to simply buy a catnip plant. Catnip doesn’t have to be prepared to have an effect, so that’s good enough for your cat. Or, you could buy dried catnip so that you can control your cat’s exposure to it; or, you could buy toys that are infused with catnip to make them more attractive to your cat.

Learn Your Cat’s Play Style (& Try New Things)

Next, you should try playing with the toy in a different way. You should try the three tips described in one of the sections above: wiggling the toy, moving the toy and hiding the toy. This is good enough for most cats and will get them to play. It’s something that will eventually come naturally to you.

However, not all cats play in the exact same way. Some cats take a little gentle goading to get into a playful mood. Your cat might respond to the cat invading its personal space.

Take a feather for example. Some cats will leap after a feather if it ‘hides’ around a corner. Other cats respond better to the feather breaking the cat’s bubble, and prodding or poking at them. So, for example, start off by tickling and poking at your cat’s cheeks; touch its feet and its tail with the tip of the feather. When your cat reacts by trying to catch the feather, only then move it away quickly and hide it around a corner. It may give chase. Or, if the cat grabs hold of the feather, try and tap it on the tummy with the tip of the feather to annoy it even more.

This might all sound cruel, but it’s really not. The trick is to recognize if your cat responds well to this kind of thing by becoming playful, or responds badly by getting angry at you. If it tries to bite the feather, pounce on it, and grab it/kick it with its hind feet, then it’s playing. But if your cat starts making a low yowling sound, hissing, and getting angry at you rather than responding to the feather, then that’s bad. You should never purposefully anger your cat.

Wait For Your Cat to Approach YOU

I’ve always felt that in the way sharks can smell blood, and other animals can smell fear, cats can smell desperation. The person desperately calling to a cat for petting and cuddles will always be the last to get them. In the same way, if you’re constantly trying to get your cat to play with you, it probably won’t.

That’s exaggerated to an extent—but there’s an element of truth there. You will find your cat far more willing to play with you if you wait for it to approach you rather than the other way round. So, if your cat is relaxing, sleeping, eating or otherwise busy then that’s a bad time for you to try and play. But if your cat comes to you for attention or affection, there’s a good chance that it would also enjoy playing too.

The reason for this is that cats don’t do things their owners want just because their owners want them to do them. You can probably picture a cat being ‘walked’, or more accurately dragged along, by a confused owner who’s more used to walking dogs! If you want your cat to do something, but it has other ideas, you can’t exactly convince it. As such, look for the following signs that your cat might be ready to play:

  • Not asleep, drowsy or relaxed. This is self-explanatory. If your cat is trying to get some shut-eye, it’s less likely to want to play. Playful cats can be roused from a slumber into ready-to-play mode, but if your cat plays rarely, that’s unlikely.
  • Eyes wide open. This shows that your cat is the opposite of drowsy. It’s not necessarily ready to play, but at least it’s alert.
  • Approaching you with tail raised and the tip bent towards you. This is a kind of cat-greeting. When your cat says hello, it wants either your attention or affection, and may be open to playing.

It’s never a bad idea to pay attention to your cat’s body language anyway. It can tell you so much about how your cat is feeling that it can drastically improve your relationship, not just in this regard, but in many ways.