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Cat toys and their potential dangers

We know you love to do everything you can to keep your beloved cat entertained. Whether your cat is a squeaky toy fan, a claw-sharpening tiger or more of a puzzle-solving genius, there is a myriad of toys available on the market to keep them occupied.

However, some of these toys are potentially dangerous and despite guidelines for choosing wisely, there is no guarantee that any cat toy is 100% safe. It’s important to be aware of these dangers, and to make sure you’re supervising playtime.

Let’s take a look at the different types of toys available, and how you can make sure that your cat is safe while they’re indulging their predator instincts.

What cat toys are out there?

Toys are a brilliant way to stimulate your cat’s mind, express their instinctive pouncing and chasing skills, encourage them to exercise more and prevent problems such as boredom and separation anxiety. Importantly, you can use toys to develop your bond with your cat through interactive play, and toys can offer a major source of enrichment, especially for indoor cats. Toys with an element of motion or sound are particularly appealing to cats.

There are many cat toys currently available on the market for you to choose from. These include:

  • Chase and pounce toys – Cats have a natural predatory instinct, so they enjoy toys that encourage them to chase and pounce. These include plastic balls, remote controlled toy mice, fabric ‘charmers’ and toys dangled from a teaser wand or fishing pole.
  • Stuffed toys – These can mimic ‘prey’ which cats like to carry around, toss or ‘fight’.
  • Treat dispensing toys – Kong wobbler toys are not just for dogs. Cats can express their natural stalking behaviour by pushing around a Kong until it releases treats. Cat food puzzles are another option.
  • Cat water fountains – Cats love to drink from moving water sources that mimic running streams. If your cat loves their H2O, then a water fountain will keep them hydrated throughout the day.
  • Cat tunnels – Tunnels are a treat for cats as in them they’re able to indulge some of the behaviours they’d naturally exhibit in the wild, like running, hiding, playing and pouncing. You can purchase either single one-way tunnels or multi-section tunnels that link up, depending on your cat’s size and the space you have available. Even a simple cardboard box with holes cut out can provide a perfect opportunity for playing hide and seek with your cat.
  • Cat exercise wheels – These are a great way to encourage your cat to exercise, as well as preventing them from getting bored. They’re basically a hamster wheel or treadmill for cats.
  • Cat climbing toys – Giving your cat the option to climb encourages them to develop their muscles and adds a new dimension to their playtime. It also allows them to enjoy the view from a high position, which provides stimulation and makes them feel safe. Cat climbing furniture can be a good way to keep your cat’s nails trim and give them something to scratch that isn’t your couch, although specific scratching posts should always be available. Examples of cat climbing toys include cat castles, ladders, condos or window hammocks.
  • Phone apps for your cat – Your kitty might have a knack for the high-tech and be interested in what’s going on with your phone screen. There are a number of apps that have been specially developed for cats, so you can entertain them with some virtual fishing, frog hunting, or ball play.

What are some of the dangers of these cat toys?

All cat toys have potential dangers but there are some that you just shouldn’t let your cat play with. These include the following toys or household objects sometimes used as toys:

  • String, elastic yarn, ribbon or dental floss
  • Paper clips
  • Rubber bands
  • Feather toys
  • Plastic bags
  • Toys with small parts inside
  • Toys small enough for your cat to swallow (such as sparkle balls)

The main dangers that can inherently come with any cat toy include suffocation, ingestion, stabbing, strangulation, falling, drowning, choking, or some other kind of injury. It’s important to be aware of these things and use a little common sense!

For example, any string-like or small sharp material can easily be swallowed, causing life-threatening damage to the intestines. String-like materials can also accidentally cause strangulation. The inside of your cat’s mouth could become lacerated by feathers, and plastic bags can cause suffocation, choking or intestinal blockage. Your cat’s sharp claws can also easily destroy cheap toys that contain many small, sharp parts. This makes them a big risk for either exposing elements of the toy that could stab your cat, or your cat accidentally ingesting something that will cause choking or a blockage in their intestines. Small toys (or parts of toys such as bells) that your cat could swallow also pose these risks.

If your cat hasn’t had much experience with climbing apparatus before, they may be in danger of falling and injuring themselves. Cats may be known for always landing on four feet but, if they’re climbing in a cramped space with lots of other objects around, there’s nothing to say they couldn’t hit something and injure themselves on the way down. Wait until your kitten is at least four months old before buying them a climbing tree.

How can I make sure my cat is safe?

Fortunately, it’s very easy to ensure that your cat is kept safe while they’re playing with their toys.

Be sure to purchase a piece of climbing furniture that’s appropriate for their size and experience, and double check that there aren’t any cords, ropes or dangly pieces that they could get caught in if they fall. Getting the environment right and making sure there’s enough space around the toy will ensure your cat can play safely.

If you buy your cat small furry toys such as toy mice, be sure to remove plastic eyes, noses or any other parts that could be swallowed. The same applies to any other external parts of toys that your cat could chew or ingest, such as feathers, bells, ribbons or strings. It is safer to choose interactive wand toys that are made of strong material fabrics rather than string.

Most importantly, remember to constantly supervise your cat if they’re playing with toys that could cause any potential injury, the way you would do with a toddler. This includes toys with batteries, moving mechanical parts, external small parts such as ornaments, dangling toys or toys on a wand. Careful supervision will allow you to prevent any injury and to remove these toys if your cat attempts to ingest them. These are the toys that should be kept out of reach of your cat when you’re not around.

To be on the safe side, this should also apply to stuffed toys that could be ripped open, because the contents of some of these could lead to choking or intestinal damage. Always supervise any play between cats and children, particularly if toys are involved. Regularly inspect your cat’s toys for signs of damage or wear, and replace them when needed. And finally, follow any instructions that come with the toy, and look out for sharp edges or pointy bits that could injure them.

Which toys are appropriate for cats and which for kittens?

First of all, choose toys that are appropriate for your cat’s age. Kittens will usually enjoy more hands-on play with items that stimulate their senses, such as fishing poles, rattly balls or apps on your phone. Of course, make sure to always supervise your kitten’s play time to prevent them from breaking the toy and exposing themselves to any dangerous or sharp elements. From an early age, it’s important to not engage in play with your cat using your fingers or hands, as this will teach them that your extremities are play toys to be bitten or scratched at.

Adult cats often enjoy more independent play that allows them to display their full range of predatory behaviour. Grown-up cats will enjoy toys like tunnels, exercise wheels or laser pointers, as this gives them the opportunity to exhibit their natural hunting sequence of ‘stalk, chase and kill’.

How can I tell if something is wrong with my cat?

There are a number of signs that your cat has ingested something they shouldn’t have, such as:

  • If your cat isn’t urinating or defecating like normal, or if they have a significantly increased or decreased appetite
  • If they’re regurgitating or vomiting
  • If they’re coughing or having difficulty breathing
  • If their gum colour is off (they should be a deep pink), or
  • If their temperature is too high or low (it should be approximately 38 to 39 degrees Celsius).

Behavioural changes, like anxiety, irritability, excessive vocalisation, constant rubbing, limping, wanting to go outside or wanting to be near you, can also be indications that something is wrong.

If you notice that your cat is displaying any of these symptoms, it’s always best to take them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you’re suspicious that it may be a new toy that is making them sick, bring the toy with you to the veterinary clinic so the veterinarian can examine it and make a judgement. Your cat may also need to be x-rayed to detect any potential blockages.

Keeping your cat safe during playtime

We all love to spoil our cats and spend quality time with them playing and enjoying their unique personalities. However, always keep in mind to choose toys that minimise any potential hazards to your cat and to use common sense when deciding which toys to leave with your cat when they are unattended. As long as you’re thorough with your playtime supervision and toy checks, it’s easy to avoid an issue caused by your cat’s toys.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.