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Get eduCATed – playing with your cat can help save birds’ lives

March 20, 2024
Sarah Ellis

Get eduCATed – playing with your cat can help save birds’ lives

Playing with your cat is a win-win situation – not only do you get to admire your cat’s athletic prowess, but doing so can help keep their appetite focused on the food bowl!

I’ve always been a huge advocate for cat owners to engage in interactive play with their cats using wand toys, as it has numerous benefits. Play provides a great opportunity for physical activity for your cat (and for you if you run around while dragging the wand toy!), which is crucial in the current climate with so many pet cats being overweight – up to around half of the UK pet cat population in some studies1. Therefore, activities, like chasing a wand toy, that encourage running, jumping and pouncing, can only be a good thing. Research has also shown that owners who had longer daily play times with their cats reported closer relationships with them 2, so playing with your cat can be a great bond booster too.

Whether we like it or not, cats are hunters. We haven’t selectively bred this innate motivation out of them, so we can’t blame them for this behaviour that has kept the species alive for so long. To keep cats mentally stimulated and emotionally well, we need to provide an outlet for their predatory natures. One way we can do this is by moving a wand with a toy on the end in a manner that mimics the movements of small mammals and birds - allowing the cat to stalk, chase, pounce and catch. However, until recently, there was some debate among the cat and wildlife-loving communities as to whether this game was a good thing for wildlife. Some believe playing with their cats would refine the cat’s hunting skills, making them a better hunter, whilst others believe providing an outlet for predatory behaviour may actually deter their cat from hunting for real prey.

Thankfully, we can bring this debate to a close with an outcome that favours both cats and wildlife!

In the 12-week study by researchers from the University of Exeter 3, owners spent five to ten minutes a day playing with their cats using a wand toy with feathers on the end for their cats to stalk, chase and pounce, followed by the offering of a toy mouse to mimic a real kill, giving the cats something to bite and manipulate with their paws. This small amount of daily play resulted in a whopping 25% reduction in the number of prey items the cats brought home.

As a songbird lover myself (the goldfinch being my favourite – those flashes of yellow as they settle in the hedges are like a sparkle of magic), knowing that playing with my cat can reduce the amount of prey she brings home is another huge motivator to play with her daily. But one of the things I find when talking to owners is many believe their cats are not interested in toys or have tried to play with them in the past and failed to elicit play. Since all cats have an innate motivation towards predatory behaviours, all cats also have the inclination to play – it’s all about selecting the right toy and moving it in the right way to ensure play is inviting, enticing and enjoyable for your cat.

My top tips for successful play are:

• Choose or make the ideal wand toy – a long handle with a lightweight toy on the end that mimics prey, such as feathers, is great!

• Think bird, think mouse – move the wand in a manner that makes the toy swoosh through the air like a bird or scurry along the ground like a mouse.

• Let your cat win – make sure you let your cat capture the toy several times during play – a toy that is impossible to catch is not much fun!

As well as wand toys, other items can be used to encourage and enhance play, as shown in the illustration below:

Visit for loads more articles and tips on choosing the best toys and tailoring play to your cat – whether a kitten or a super senior – they can all benefit from play.

I’d like to finish by saying that the beneficial effects playing with your cat can have for birds can literally take as long as it takes to make a couple of cups of tea a day and does not need to cost you a thing. You can make your own wand toys from a stick, a piece of string or wire and some foraged feathers. So, go on…switch the kettle on and pick up that wand toy – both your cat and the neighbourhood birds will thank you!


1. Woodmansey, D. (2019). Report- obesity on rise in UK companion animals. Available at:

2. Henning, J. S. L., Nielsen, T., Fernandez, E., & Hazel, S. (2022). Factors associated with play behavior in human-cat dyads. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 52, 21-30.

3. Cecchetti, M., Crowley, S. L., Goodwin, C. E., & McDonald, R. A. (2021). Provision of high meat content food and object play reduce predation of wild animals by domestic cats Felis catus. Current biology, 31(5), 1107-1111.

Sarah Ellis

Sarah is the head of Cat Mental Wellbeing and Behaviour at pioneering cat welfare charity International Cat Care. International Cat Care focuses on improving the lives of cats and affecting positive change in regards to cats, cat ownership and welfare worldwide. Sarah specifically has a wealth of experience in animal behaviour, with a BSc, post-graduate diploma and a PhD from Queens University Belfast that focused on improving cat welfare in homing centres.

Sarah was on the panel of stakeholders who provided their professional expertise and insight into the Cats and their Owners project, to make sure the project was ethically sound, and could provide win-win solutions for cats and wildlife.

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