Why Do Cats Like to Play With String?
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A cat playing with a ball of yarn or a piece of string is almost a cliché. It is an image which has been seen in cartoons and posters for decades. Anyone who has a cat in their family will know it is a cliché for a reason. Cats love to chase pieces of string along the ground, grasping and clawing at it until they finally catch up. When they do, they will often fall on their backs and kick at the string with their back feet.
At AnimalWised we ask why do cats like to play with string? We find out the answers so we can understand feline behavior. We also see how something as simple as a piece of string can help bring happiness and well-being to the life of a cat and their human family.
Why cats play with string
While every cat is an individual, there is something universal about the feline desire to play with string, yarn or other long pieces of material. The reason is because it not only taps into their natural instincts and innate behaviors. Cats playing with string also helps them to learn necessary skills and provides benefits which might not be obvious without looking deeper into the context.
When we do look at the context of why cats like to play with string, we can find many benefits of this behavior. Cats play with string because It:
- Exercises their hunting instinct
- Relates to their visual acuity
- Teaches them how to interact with their environment
- Helps relieve anxiety and boredom
- Improves the bond with their human guardian
Although we will look at the benefits of cats playing with string, we also detail why we need to be careful with this activity. Keep reading if you want to know why playing is so important for your cat.
Exercises their hunting instinct
If you have an outdoor cat in your family, it is likely they will from time to time bring you a present. It is believed cats bring dead animals home as an expression of the love and affection they hold for their human guardians. However, it also related to how cats teach each other.
A mother cat will catch and kill a prey animal for her litter when they are of sufficient age. This teaches the kittens the skills they would need in the wild to feed themselves and survive. When the cat brings us a present, it is possible they are trying to teach us, the other members of their family, the same skills.
All of this goes to show how strong is the hunting instinct in cats. In particular, chasing a piece of string piques this instinct. Long winding pieces of strong resemble either an appendage of a prey animal, in the case of animals with tails, or even the full animal, in the case of snakes. Playing with string allows cats to exercise this instinct, similarly to how they will play fight with their siblings to learn fighting behaviors.
Relates to their visual acuity
Have you ever seen your cat stop in their tracks and seemingly stare intently at nothing. More likely than not, it is simply because we can't see what they do. It is not correct to say that a cat has ‘better’ vision than that of a human. The reason is that we have different strengths and weakness. Humans have a better perception of color and can see further distances, but cats have better sensitivity in low light.
The reason for this is due to superior light-concentrating abilities, something, in part, due to having more rod cells in their eyes. They also have a wide range of vision and good peripheral sight. They also see better up close than far away. When an animal is in their field of vision or peripheral vision, they will often be noticed by a part of their body, a tail for example.
When we play with a cat with a piece of string, the cat will chase as if it is prey. They will likely eventually realise it is not an actual animal, but if they want to engage in play activity, they will continue.
Teaches them how to interact with their environment
This is where the importance of play activity comes in. Cats will need to learn how to interact with their environment to survive in it. While we cater for their basic needs in the domestic environment, we cannot take natural instinct away from cats completely.
When a cat plays with a piece of string, you will often see them bandy it about with their paws. They will jump on it, bite it, grab it and interact with it in many ways. These are all ways the cat is fine-tuning their motor skills, skills they use to interact with objects in their day to day lives. It is important we play with cats to develop their abilities, one reason why food dispensing toys are so good for cats. They appeal to their natural instincts and stimulate their cognition at the same time. Playing with string does something very similar.
Helps relieve anxiety and boredom
Another reason why a cat likes to play with string is one of the most important: it's fun. Cats enjoy playing less as they get older, but their capacity to have fun never quite leaves completely. While we have shown that playing with string allows cats to be able to hone their skills and exercise instinct, they also do it because they enjoy it. It is hard to tell whether a cat really thinks a piece of string is a living being, but we're also not sure if it matters.
Having fun is not only a way to pass the time, but it can prove beneficial in ways we too often forget. Having fun helps cats to relieve anxiety. If they are stressed or anxious about something, which can happen relatively easy for some cats, playing with string releases some of this stress.
Boredom is often a root cause of stress. When a cats are not given enough mental stimulation, they can develop behavioral problems. They may even become aggressive in extreme circumstances. Playing with a piece of string or other games allow cats to be entertained and improve their well-being.
Improves the bond with their human guardian
Some cats will not touch a piece of string if it is just lying on the ground. Only when they human guardian picks it up and initiates play does it become something which interests them. As well as being a great way to relieve stress, playing with our cat allows us to improve our bond. The cat associates the fun of playing with us, meaning in the future they will think of us positively.
However, for this to happen, we need to ensure the experience is positive. If we never let the cat catch the string and only tease them, we might cause more frustration rather than lessening it. We need to allow the cat to catch the string and play with it every once in a while to avoid this happening.
To know more about healthy ways to interact with your companion animal, our article on how long to play with you cat may be useful.
Is playing with string safe for cats?
In the majority of cases, playing with a piece of string will not be a problem for the cat. They will catch it in their paws, pounce on it when it moves past them or bat at it when we dangle it above their heads. However, there are some issues we need to consider.
If the string is not attached to anything and is thin, there is a risk of swallowing. We might see this if the cat starts making choking noises. Since a cat sees the piece of string as a prey animal replacement, it is possible they will try to eat it. This is something which is common in young cats which have not yet learned to properly differentiate the string.
Some cases have resulted in the animal being able to pass the string completely. However, it is also possible they will only be passed partially. In these cases, it is vital you do not try to remove the string yourself. Whether in the oral cavity or emerging from the rectum, pulling on the string can cause serious damage to the cat's throat or intestines, respectively. Since the string can be very long, we don't know how severe the issue might be.
It is also possible for the string to bunch up and cause an internal blockage. In these cases, the cat can become bloated and their life may even be threatened. Take the cat to a veterinarian to assess the situation. In acute cases, surgery may need to be performed.
If we do play with our cat using a piece of string, we need ti always supervise and not let the cat take it on their own completely. This way we can ensure there is no opportunity for them to swallow and potentially choke.
Better toys for cats
While a piece of string on its own isn't necessarily an ideal toy for a cat, it can be incorporated into other toys. They include:
- Fishing rod toys: these are toys where a lure is tied to a rod which can be used to dangle in front of the cat. The lure can be many things, often a noisemaker, feather or small plush toy. Since the string is tied to these objects, it makes it very unlikely the cat will be able to swallow it.
- Kong toy: kong toys are a type of food dispensing toy for cats. A piece of kibble, a treat or some other desirable food for the cat is placed inside the kong. The cat then needs to use both their physical and mental abilities to retrieve the food.
- Balls: there are many types of ball toy which can be enjoyed by a cat. Whether they have a little bell inside a feather attached to the outside or some other appealing feature, cats often enjoy chasing them around the house. Some cats have even been able to learn fetch.
- Intelligence games: these games are designed with the specific purpose of improving your cat's mental abilities. Often they is a rudimentary puzzle the cat will have to complete to retrieve a prize, most commonly a piece of food.
For further information, you can read our article on toys for cats. If you want to show your cat just how much you love them, you can learn how to make your own DIY cat toys at home.
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1. Kang, I., et al. (2009). Contrast Sensitivity of Cats and Humans in Scotopic and Mesopic Conditions. Journal of Neurophysiology, 102(2), 831-840.