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Getting fit: 6 exercises that even your cat will enjoy

We all know exercise promotes our physical and mental wellbeing, but did you know exercise is just as vital for our feline companions? Domestic cats must be provided with opportunities to move so they can keep fit and burn off energy. This also stimulates them mentally, which helps to prevent boredom, frustration, and the problem behaviours that can develop when their behavioural needs are not being met.

It’s important to remember the health benefits of keeping your cat fit and avoiding obesity. Cats who become obese have a shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of serious diseases such as; diabetes, lower urinary tract disease, osteoarthritis and fatty liver. Obesity in cats can also lead to breathing problems, reduced immunity and higher anaesthetic risk. If your cat is already obese, be sure to seek advice from your vet about an exercise and diet plan with regular weigh-ins to help them lose weight safely and gradually. Check out 5 signs of pet obesity – and what to do about it for more information.

The good news is that the best way to exercise your cat is through playtime! This can involve setting up your home to encourage them to entertain themselves and move around, and also having at least two 15-minute sessions each day to play together. Interactive play with your cat is not only fun – it creates a special space for companionship and bonding. And, as an added bonus, playing together relieves stress, which is good for your mental health, and may even motivate you to keep up your own fitness routine!

The key to playing with your cat is to find out what they enjoy, encourage natural behaviours such as; stalking, chasing and pouncing, and offer different choices. Outdoor cats may have more opportunities to exercise, but outdoor life brings its own risks such as; getting lost, being injured (from cat fights, dog bites or being hit by a car) and catching infectious diseases from other cats. With the right information, it’s easy to make sure indoor cats get the exercise and stimulation they need whilst kept safe within in their own homes (preferably with secure outdoor access).

Now for the fun part – try out the following 6 ways to exercise your cat:

Exercise 1: Playtime with toys

Cats love to move, but they all have their own style of play. Some enjoy jumping in the air to swipe at toys, and others prefer to run along the ground and ‘catch’ their prize. They also have preferences for the type of toy. There are many cat toys to choose from – mice, bugs, bird-like toys, cat-friendly balls, feathers on sticks, motorised toys and wand toys. To find the right game, firstly observe how your cat naturally plays and then match this with the most suitable toys and activities. Playtime with cats should be varied to keep them interested. You can do this by letting your cat ‘capture’ the moving toy occasionally and by rotating toys to prevent boredom.

Be sure to always supervise your cat with new toys and avoid any that are small enough to swallow or that have sharp parts or string that could be ingested. Wand toys and any others that are dangled for your cat to swipe will usually contain ribbon or string, so hide these away in between games. It’s best to avoid laser pointers, because these tend to leave cats feeling highly frustrated as they never succeed in ‘catching’ their prey.

Exercise 2: Multi-storey cat tower

A multi-storey cat tower is one of the best enrichment ideas for your cat and is a great way to encourage your furry friend to work-out by climbing and playing. You can do this by placing small treats in different areas of the tree. Another idea is to place the tree near open floor space so your cat can run and jump before climbing. A cat tree doesn’t need to be an expensive purchase either – you can easily build one with old cardboard boxes, including entry and exit points and small windows to peep out from.

Exercise 3: Hide and seek

This game is not only for dogs! Many cats enjoy playing hide and seek, which is also a great way for your indoor cat to get enough exercise. All you need are some hiding places, such as empty cardboard boxes with cat-sized holes for jumping in and out easily. You can also play this game by doing a bit of your own hiding to encourage your cat to seek you out. Just hide behind something and peep around it to help them stalk you out!

Exercise 4: Food games

Food games will give your cat the incentive to chase and are a great way of keeping your cat safe and happy at home. You can either throw pieces of dry food on the floor or hide food in various locations around the home. Just be sure that this food is part of their daily allowance to avoid weight gain.

Exercise 5: Puzzle feeders

Puzzle feeders encourage your cat to play to obtain their food and have been shown to improve both mental wellbeing and physical health. Most cats are fed from food bowls at the same place and same time of day. When we consider the normal behaviour of wild cats, it’s no surprise that they are stimulated by opportunities to problem solve and search for their food instead of just walking to the food bowl! Puzzle feeders require both mental and physical exertion, because cats need to manipulate the feeder to release their food. Introduce a puzzle feeder gradually by placing increasing amounts of your cat’s food portions (both wet and dry) in the feeder and your cat will do the rest! Besides providing opportunities for enrichment and exercise, puzzle feeders assist weight loss and reduce stress-related behaviours.

Exercise 6: Exploring outdoors

Many cat owners ask, ‘Should I walk my cat on a lead?’ to exercise them outdoors. This is generally not a safe option for cats because they are prone to escaping when frightened by unfamiliar scents or experiences, such as dogs, loud noises and cars. An alternative is to walk your cat in the backyard, providing this is well-contained and provides no escape routes. Cats must be trained as kittens to walk on a lead and cat harness (not a collar, which can slip off, hurt their neck or become entangled) and not all cats respond well to this training, so it is not suitable for all cats. The safest option is to set up cat-proof fencing or a cat-proof enclosure in the yard so your furry friend can explore the outdoors without danger and at their own pace.

Look for daily opportunities

Cats enjoy the same benefits of exercise as their owners, so it’s important to provide them with daily opportunities to have fun and keep fit. Your cat will let you know what they enjoy. And remember, shared activities are the best way to keep up the motivation - both your cat’s and your own! This blog offers general information, so see your veterinarian to discuss any particular exercise needs for your cat, as well as any health issues that may affect their mobility and weight.

Apart from exercising, a good diet and regular check-ups are important to keep your cat healthy and happy. A pet insurance policy can also provide you with the security of knowing you can seek veterinary advice promptly if an eligible illness or injury occurs.

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.