Ask Amy: Cat Won't Play

Why won’t my cat play?

playing kitten
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Question: “My Cat Won’t Play.”

Gail writes, “It breaks my heart that my three-year-old cat doesn’t play much at all. I try tossing balls up the stairs and sometimes she will paw them so that they roll back down to me; most times, however, she just sits there looking at me. I tried catnip toys and she has little interest. I’ve tried pulling strings, and still no go. She tends to watch me more than play. Please help. I know she needs stimulation and activity and I want to provide that.

Amy’s Answer

Cats fall into a range of personalities and activity levels, Gail. All kittens play but the high-energy games peak at around four to five months, and decline thereafter. Once cats reach adulthood, cats tend to fall into two major groups, what I call the ankle-rubbers who continue to play—and the lap-sitters who prefer less activity. There can be ways to encourage activity, which is healthy for both the body and brain. And there can be other issues that influence play, which can be evaluated using the H.I.S.S. Test.


Health certainly influences activity levels. While a three-year-old cat might not suffer from arthritis and more age-related health issues. But any sort of health challenge that makes the cat feel poorly—intestinal worms, for example—might reduce the cat’s activity.


Cat play mimics hunting. Movement triggers the paw-patting and chasing behavior. Kittens indulge in self-play and can entertain themselves. They have great fun tossing toys and chasing human feet, but adults need more direct stimulation. Cat toys typically are only as good as the human on the other end of the toy.


Any kind of stress often brought about by a sudden change, can impact a cat’s activity level. Cats that feel overwhelmed by stress won’t want to play.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

At three years of age, your adult cat has outgrown the frantic play-activity of kittenhood. She may well have the personality of a lap-sitter, and not be inclined to play on her own. Perhaps she actually enjoys her “kitty TV” watching YOU pretend to be a cat and play the games for her! But I suspect that you’ve simply not yet found the perfect (purr-fect?) toy for this kitty.

Be aware that not all cats react to catnip. She may be in that 1/3rd of cats that could care less. However, my cat Seren never reacted to catnip toys, either, until I brought home a sample of fresh, potent catnip from a cat show. She went wild!

Further, the toy needs to move in an interesting way to garner your cat’s attention. Here are some things I’d suggest you try.

Visit a pet product store and purchase some growing catnip. Crush a leaf and see if she reacts better to the real thing. Catnip comes in a variety of potencies and can become old and stale very quickly. If you can get a bag full of very potent catnip, store some of the toys inside the bag to give them a lift.

Visit a pet product store—or even a hobby shop—and get a package of pheasant feathers. I find these to be one cats rarely can resist. It can be “snaked” along the floor for the cat to chase, or even held overhead for her to grapple. Playing a game with a “disappearing” feather really revs up my cat. Use an old shirt or pillow, and thread the long feather (or the yarn), underneath and slowly pull it so it “hides” right in front of the cat’s eyes. Seren goes nuts, trying to grab it before the feather disappears.

Fishing pole lure toys really tickle the fancy of many cats. Forget the boring yarn, go for “Da Bird” toy with a fluttering feather on the end of the line that flies through the air. Cat product stores feature these lure toys, as well as feather wands called “cat teases” in a variety of styles. Some have bells, or shiny mylar, rattles and more that keep cats intrigued. Or you can try other cheap thrills with homemade toys.