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Do cats know when you’re playing with them?

Cats are fascinating animals. As pets, they are closer to their wild counterparts than our other favorite companion, dogs. They may be domestic pets, but they aren’t quite domesticated. This certainly makes owning a cat interesting, but it can also make it harder to understand their needs and behavior. 

It’s natural to have questions about your feline friend, including whether they know when you are playing with them. 

Do cats know when you’re playing with them?

Does your cat see your hand moving the feather or yarn? Do they care if you are playing with them? Cats have a reputation for being solitary animals, but the truth is a bit more complex. 

Controlling a Toy

When you are playing with your cat by controlling a toy, it’s not known how much they understand. Some theorize that cats don’t know, or simply don’t care, how the toy is moving. They just care that it is moving. 

However, others believe that cats do understand what you are doing. It’s possible this is through associative memory. 

Cats learn a lot through associative memory. They aren’t known for long, deep pondering. Instead, they operate through trial and error. They will try something and see what happens. Whatever the result, they remember and expect the same result when they repeat the behavior. 

It can take cats several times of repeating a behavior to cement this, or they may remember the first time. 

In the case of the toy, your cat may simply know that when you grab the toy, the toy comes to life. Associative memory has taught them that you grabbing toy equals play with toy. 

Some owners claim that their cat seems very aware of them controlling the toy. There are several stories of owners playing with laser pointers with their cats. The cat gets tired or frustrated with the laser pointer, and glares at the human. It seems they are attempting to shame them for such a cruel trick, using a toy that they can’t physically catch. 

There are also many cases of cats pouncing on the hand controlling the toy, particularly when they become bored with the toy. Whether this is a recognition of the hand controlling the toy or simply them spotting something new to play with is up for debate. 

What Do Cats Think of Humans?

You may also wonder what cats think of humans. Does your cat see you as a human? 

Their behavior suggests that they actually see you as a huge clumsy cat. Dogs adapt many of their social behaviors when interacting with humans. It’s rare to see a dog sniffing it’s owner’s butt, for example. Dogs will lick their owners, but they don’t use the flea bite that they use to groom themselves and other dogs. Cats, however, simply use the same behaviors they have with other cats on people. They lick us, rub against us, and play with us in the same way they play with other felines. 

This suggests that they probably don’t view humans as inherently different than them. 

Does my cat know I am playing when I chase him?

Some cats seem to want to play chase with you, while others can find it scary. To decode whether your cat enjoys a game of chase, and knows you are playing, you’ll need to watch their behavior. 

Cats That Like Chase

Cats are highly skilled at communicating what they want, and getting it. It can be adorable or even annoying at times, particularly when they are demanding at the worst possible moments. 

A cat that wants to be chased may dart out of the room at full speed, and then look back or wait for you to catch them. They may also run  a few feet away, and then stop. 

If your cat runs and then stops, looking for you, you can assume that they want you to chase them. It’s also safe to assume that the cat knows it’s a game. 

Most owners know that cats enjoy play fighting, but they may not be aware that cats also play chase with each other. It’s possible that this is training for hunting prey. However, cats are generally stalking hunters, not chasing hunters. It’s more likely that they simply enjoy chase, not that they consider it an important survival skill. 

Because cats seem to view their humans as a larger cat, it’s not surprising they want to play with you the same way they play with other cats. You likely discourage them from play fighting with you, because their claws can be painful. So, this leaves chase as the option when they want to play with you. 

Cats That Don’t Like Chase

Like all animals, cats have their own unique personalities and preferences. Some cats are simply not interested in cardiovascular activities. These cats are content to spend their time lounging, and aren’t very active. 

Other cats are nervous, or easily scared. They may seem timid, or quick to be aggressive. If your cat is prone to fear or nervous behavior, they probably won’t enjoy being chased. They may feel that they are in danger, and not recognize that you are attempting to play with them. 

A cat that doesn’t enjoy chase will run and hide, while a cat that wants you to chase them will want to be found. If your cat runs and hides under the bed, you can assume that chase is not the game for them. 

Do cats like it when you play with them?

Again, all cats have their own personality. Most cats enjoy play, but not all do. A cat that enjoys play one day may not enjoy it the next. It’s important to watch your cats behavior and follow their cues when playing, to ensure that you both enjoy the experience. 

Signs Your Cat Wants to Play

Cats can seem difficult to read, but they will tell you how they are feeling, and when they want to play. You just have to know how to understand what they are  trying to tell you. 

It’s all about the body language. When a cat is happy and playful, expect their ears to be erect or pointing forward. If they are anxious or aggressive, their ears will be tilted back or against their head. 

Next, look at their tail. The tail should be straight or curved towards their head. This typically means they are happy and relaxed. However, if their tail is curved and they are standing on tip toes, it means they are scared. 

A playful cat will hold its head up and erect. They may also make eye contact with you. If their head is down, assume that your cat is feeling down as well. The exception to this rule is if your cat is focusing on something on the ground. If they are about to pounce on a toy, for example, their head will be down because they are watching the toy intently. 

Some cats will roll on their back when they want to play. They may also crawl into your lap and lay on their back. This is a very vulnerable position. It means your cat trusts you, and likely wants to play as well. 

Cats also use vocalizations. You’ll need to pay attention to the sound and tone to decode these. Cats often sound as if they are making a request when they want something. If your cat seems to be meowing with a question mark at the end, they may want to play. 

Overstimulation and Aggression

Aggression is a sign your cat is overstimulated or tired. Cats have a difficult time regulating the difference between play and hunting. In fact, cats playing with kittens will sometimes injure or kill them, because playing can trigger their hunting instincts. 

If your cat bites or scratches you, it may be because overstimulation has sent them into hunting mode. It’s important to stop playing at this time. Stopping the play will teach them when they do this behavior, the play ends. It’s an effective way of using negative reinforcement. 

You may notice signs before your cat attacks that tell you it’s time to end the session. If they are heavily panting, they probably need a rest. If they begin to get irritable, anxious, or aggressive, end the play session then. 

How to End a Play Session

Many pet owners make the mistake of abruptly ending a play session. This is unsatisfying and even frustrating for your cat. It’s best to slowly wind down the session. 

Allow them to “catch the prey” faster a few times. Create less of a struggle from the “prey”. For the last round, put the toy down after the cat catches it. They may pounce on it or shake it a few times. Do not put the toy away until your cat walks away from the toy. If you do, they may take it as the prey coming back to life, which will cause them to want to attack it again. 

Many experts suggest giving your cat a treat when the play session is over. This can help redirect their attention, and also reinforces the natural hunting progression. 

Of course, a cat doesn’t always eat what it hunts. Sometimes, the hunt is unsuccessful. Other times, the cat may hunt for entertainment rather than hunger. So, it’s not required to feed your cat a treat after every session, but it can be helpful. 

How do you know if your cat is playing with you?

Cats are coy creatures. They certainly present more of a challenge than their canine counterparts. Still, you can tell if your cat is playing with you if you observe them closely. 

Cats can play roughly, so it can sometimes be difficult to know if they are playing. Generally speaking, if a cat wants to hurt you, they will hurt you. 

Cats have razor sharp claws and teeth. They can claw or bite hard enough to cause a person to need stitches when they are truly angry. 

If your cat scratches you without breaking the skin, they are probably playing or simply trying to get your attention. If they do break the skin, take the time to see how deep the scratch is. A shallow scratch may mean they were trying to get your attention, or they were afraid of falling. 

Cats will also knead with their claws. They will spread their toes and very lightly dig their claws in, moving their paws in a kneading motion. They do this when nursing their mother, and it remains a way to show contentment or affection when they are adults. 

A cat that is playing, particularly a younger cat, may also scratch you simply because they got too excited. An angry cat will flatten their ears against their head, and probably growl as well. 

When it comes to bites, nips are often used to express their affection. Nips are very light bites that don’t break the skin. Instead, they are more like an affectionate pinch. 

If your cat has their fur raised, ears flattened, and is growling, they are biting out of fear or anger. If they are purring or kneading and then bite, you can assume they are nipping or simply attempting to play. 

What happens if you never play with your cat?

If you never play with your cat, you can expect to have behavioral issues. There are many reasons to play with your cat. Not doing so can cause a range of health and mental problems. 

Killer Instincts

Cats are predators. We may have domesticated them, although that is somewhat questionable. However, we certainly have not eliminated their killer instincts, which are an integral part of what makes them a cat. 

Play is an outlet for these instincts. Most cats, particularly indoor cats, have no access to actual prey. Most pet owners would prefer not to be gifted with mice or moles, so that leaves only one option. Playing with your cat. 

If you don’t allow them to be predators by playing, you can expect it to come out in negative ways. Your cat may be aggressive with you. They may become destructive, destroying your favorite items out of boredom and frustration. 

High Stress Levels

We’ve long known that stress has negative health effects in humans. The same is true for your favorite feline. Feline Interestitional Cystis is a common disorder that is directly linked to high stress levels. It’s thought that the release of cortisol caused by stress plays a role in the disorder. Cystis causes inflammation in the urinary tract, which can cause pain and urinary difficulty. 

Poor Bonding

This should be fairly obvious. We bond with other people partly through shared experiences. We go bowling, hiking, or watch movies together. We may also engage in playful behavior with one another as a way of bonding. 

Cats also require play as part of bonding. It allows them to develop a sense of trust with you. It creates positive associations, because play is an enjoyable experience. If you aren’t playing with your cat, your relationship will never be the best it could be. 


50% of domestic cats are overweight. Cats prefer cerebral hunting to cardio chasing, typically, but they are still burning calories. Pouncing, stalking, and chasing prey helps burn calories, increase their heartrate, and builds muscle. 

This is essential for your cat to maintain a healthy weight, just as exercise is important for human’s health. 


Cats need mental and physical stimulation. Without stimulation, they become bored. This can lead to behavioral issues. Some become obsessive groomers. Some sleep too often. Some become aggressive or destructive. 

While these are vastly different behaviors, they can all stem from boredom. Cats need entertainment to be happy and healthy, just like humans do. If you neglect this aspect of your cat’s needs, your cat will develop undesirable behaviors.