Exercise Ideas for Indoor Cats

Until 2010, when a cat walked up to me on the street, all scraggly and dirty, I was ambivalent toward cats. However, that cute little orange face won me over, and I took in the stray we later named Dizzy. Fast forward two years, and that formerly skinny kitty weighed in at 15 pounds. Dizzy, my vet said, needed to go on a diet. More than 58% of cats are overweight or obese, according to a 2009 study. Treats are to blame, experts say, but so is inactivity.

Since Dizzy, like most cats, is an indoor-only cat, I had to find creative ways to get him moving more. Beyond weight management, exercise (playing, really) can even help reduce or eliminate aggressive or destructive behavior in cats as well, according to the ASPCA. That's an extra bonus for cat owners whose attention-seeking pets interfere with their plans to sleep through the night or work without distraction!

Cats are predators, and while it's natural for them to live outdoors, they live longer and stay healthier when living in your home. But as a downside, indoor living can thwart their hunting instincts and cut down on the amount of time they spend moving. Running around the house isn't enough for most pets; you need to build in play time each day to help them burn energy and stay healthy. Of course, we know cats are finicky and each one has a unique personality. If your cat doesn't like one toy or game, try another. And some cats just have no interest in playing with humans or toys, in which case, you've got your work cut out for you!

If you're worried about trying to find the time to play with your kitty in an already busy day, consider this: In 2008, researchers found that owning a cat could lower your heart attack risk by a third. Spending time with a pet has also been found to lower stress levels and blood pressure in humans. If nothing else, it will put a smile on your face and bring you and your feline companion closer.

When to Play
Does your cat get rowdy every night before bed? Does he spend most of the afternoon sleeping, only to wake and demand attention at dinnertime? Pay attention to your cat's natural rhythms, and if possible, integrate playtime into the times when he is more active. A sleeping cat is not going to be excited to be roused for playtime, nor is a post-mealtime play session the best idea. (I learned that one the hard way.)

Find a time when your cat is active and you are home. Cats have short attention spans, so even a few minutes of play can make a big difference. If your cat's attention starts to wane, try a different game. Keep the play going as long as the cat is interested.

Here are some fun exercise ideas that will help keep your cat entertained and moving, beyond the usual cat toys.

Explore Vertical Spaces
Cats like to jump and climb, so it's important to provide places for them to explore safely. If your kitty likes to climb and jump to high areas (counters, shelves, etc.), keep spaces where they often climb free from obstacles and breakables. Place catnip or small toys on these high perches to reward your cat for climbing them. If you have the space, invest in a kitty condo (or make your own!).

Cat Scratchers
Scratching posts are as useful to cats as they are to owners. Of course, they (are intended to) spare your furniture from being scratched, but they serve a greater purpose: They help your kitty stretch his front legs and torso and strengthen his back legs. Even cats who have been declawed still have the instinct to "scratch" and will enjoy the texture of a scratcher. Experiment with a variety of scratching posts. Many cats like the cardboard or wood varieties, but my cat won't touch them. I have two scratching posts with feathers attached, plus two flat scratchers filled with catnip that hang on doorknobs. The feathers and catnip make my cat much more interested in using them!

Laser Pointers
Now these are cheap fun for owners and cats alike. When Dizzy was younger, his favorite toy was the laser pointer, and he would happily chase it for as long as he could see it. Encourage your cat to run along the floors, over furniture and even to jump up the wall to chase the pointer. These useful devices will usually hold cats' attention for a long time.

Cat Leash and Halter
I bought a harness and leash for each of our cats. These days, they'll walk up to a half-mile with us, though we usually have to carry them home (stubborn cats!). This lets your indoor cat explore the outdoors while keeping him safe. 

Not every cat will respond well to collars or leashes, but many can be trained to use them and even learn to love them, but it can test your patience. Dizzy resisted the leash at first, but we rewarded him with lots of love and catnip, and now he really seems to enjoy his walks. Stick to your yard and immediate surroundings at first, then gradually go farther. Let your cat set the pace. Your cat's finicky nature will come out when you walk: Some days he may run down the road; other days he will only want to roll in the grass.

Let Cats Be Cats
Does your cat ever run around or bounce off the walls and furniture? Then let him play without interfering. Tempting as it might be to stop loud or disruptive play, if there is no danger of your cat getting hurt, let him play!

While cats can be very low-maintenance pets, regular playtime is important for their well-being and for your pet-human relationship. Whether you invest in a few toys or come up with your own games for free, your cat will thank you for helping him stay healthy and happy.

I'm happy to report that a combination of diet and exercise have helped Dizzy shed over a pound, and he's well on his way to his goal weight of 13 pounds.

Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, "Pet Obesity Continues to Grow in US," www.petobesityprevention.com, accessed on June 13, 2013.
Medical News Today, "Cat Owners Have Lower Heart Attack Risk," www.medicalnewstoday.com, accessed on June 13, 2013.
Newswise, "People May Draw More Support from Furry Friends than Spouses, Human Allies," www.newswise.com, accessed on June 13, 2013.
Rodale News, "5 Ways that Spending Time with Animals Helps Your Health," www.rodale.com, accessed on June 13, 2013.
ASPCA, "Cats Who Play Rough," www.aspca.org, accessed on June 13, 2013.