Scientists Say That Cats Like to Play Fetch

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 5 min read

Scientists Say That Cats Like to Play Fetch

We all know that dogs are big fans of playing fetch, but did you know that plenty of cats enjoy it too? We often think of cats as being untrainable and loving their independence. However, the truth is that cats can actually do a lot of different things. And a study has recently revealed that one of the things many cats love to do is play fetch!

The study was carried out by scientists at the University of Sussex and Northumbria University in England. It looked at nearly 1,000 cat owners to find out about the play habits of their kitties.

The first study of its kind, its findings were first published in the journal Nature. It points out that cats often instinctively like to play and suggests that cat owners (rather, those who are owned by cats) should think about different ways to engage their cats in play.

Playing with your cat is a great way to keep them active to prevent boredom and keep them at a healthy weight, which is particularly important for indoor cats.

Cats like to be in control!

The report found that cats generally like to be in control of the game - which probably isn't a surprise to anyone who has ever had a cat! It also said that cats don't need to be trained to be able to play, since they do it on instinct. They don't always play fetch quite like dogs do, retrieving items that their owner has thrown, but they do love to bring various items to their human.

Cat biting toy by toe beans

Jemma Forman, a doctoral researcher who worked on the study had this to say:

"Cats who initiated their fetching sessions played more enthusiastically with more retrievals and more fetching sessions per month. This perceived sense of control from the cat's perspective may be beneficial for the cat's welfare and the cat-owner relationship."

She went on to say:

"I'd encourage owners to be receptive to the needs of their cat by responding to their preferences for play - not all cats will want to play fetch, but if they do, it's likely that they will have their own particular way of doing so."

Dr Elizabeth Renner, a lecturer in psychology at Northumbria University who was co-author of the study, said:

"We think it's important because it demonstrates how much this behavior is led by cats themselves, since very few of the owners surveyed explicitly trained their cats to fetch."

The way cats play fetch varies too. Some cats were noted to bring objects back to their owners. Others would only bring the item part of the way back, while some gradually dropped the item further and further away - maybe trying to get their human to be the one fetching! Cats are usually the ones to start and end games of fetch over their owners, according to the study.

Cats instinctively play fetch - but they're picky

The study looked at 924 cat owners, who between them had 1,154 cats that like to play fetch. Most of these were mixed breeds, as most cats are, but 160 of them were purebred cats.

What was found was that almost all of these cats instinctively liked to play fetch from a young age. They showed this by bringing toys or other objects to their owners. After toys, the most common items cats were seen to play fetch with were spherical items like balls of paper and baubles, and (a bit more surprisingly) cosmetics. Some of the purebred cats were more likely to want to play fetch too, with Siamese cats more likely to play fetch than other breeds.

Cat with toy on wall by toe beans

The experts noticed a few other key behaviors from cats playing fetch. Some cats only liked to fetch one item at a time and others had one person they liked to play with. Some cats also only liked to play fetch at particular times of the day. Anyone who's a cat parent is probably well aware that cats can be very particular, but this study confirms that some of them really do have their preferences when it comes to play.

You've probably had the experience of buying a toy for your cat and having to watch it be neglected. One of the owners who took part in the study said that the size of the toy was very important. Their cat preferred to play fetch with a pompom, but a larger pompom wasn't to the cat's liking. Smaller items the same size as the pompom weren't a hit, either.

And when it comes to when cats like to play, cat lovers are well aware that it's not always at the most convenient times. Participants in the study told stories of their cats waking them during the night by dropping toys on their pillows!

Why do cats play fetch?

Even though the study tells us that cats like to play fetch, it doesn't tell us why. That part remains a mystery, which is pretty fitting for cats. They probably love having an air of mystery about them.

Dogs like to play fetch because it helps them bond with their owners, but the reason cats do it isn't so clear. Jemma Forman told the Washington Post:

"We're not quite sure whether it would be a social purpose, or that object-playing purpose in cats."

Cat laying with toy by toe beans

Some people see cats as not very sociable, especially when compared with dogs. But cat parents know that's not true and that their cats are very sociable in lots of ways. As well as playing fetch and other games, they might like to cuddle and get scritches.

Some cats can even be trained to do tricks - for the right rewards, of course. But, as this study reveals, cats like to do things on their own terms. They like to be in charge and they choose how they play, who, and what they like to play with.

This study really highlights the need for pet parents to be in tune with what their cats want and to respond to their needs accordingly.

Does your kitty like to play fetch? What is their favorite thing to bring you?

Read More Cat Behavior Guides

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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