Many cat owners have long clung to the simple wisdom that their pets will always have the most fun with the cheapest, least thrilling items around the house: shoelaces, cardboard boxes, newspapers, and so on. But it's hard to reconcile that notion with a survey of the cat toys on the market today.
The old standbys are still kicking, of course. You'll never have to search too far for a plush mouse in your favorite color. But alongside the classics are a growing array of electronic cat toys. They range from the decidedly cheap to the more extravagant and soon to the artificially intelligent.
Can innovative electronic toys really offer your cats something that traditional, non-battery-powered options can't? That depends on the needs of you and your cat.
"As Americans, we tend to value being busy. People are often looking for ways to entertain their cats that they don't have to be involved in," said Patricia McConnell, a University of Madison-Wisconsin zoology professor and certified animal behaviorist. "I don't see that as a particularly good thing."
But fancier toys don't always take pet owners out of playtime. Nor is that necessarily what cat lovers want when they spring for innovative toys.
Consider Mousr, which Petronics claims will be the first artificially intelligent cat toy when it goes on the market this year. The Kickstarter-funded robotic mouse is programmed to sense your cat's movements and react accordingly in a predator-prey dynamic. It'll come equipped with a fully automated mode — which means you don't have to be there to play with your cat — but other options are meant to give humans some control over where and how Mousr darts and hides.
This is meant to optimize a cheap game most cat owners are familiar with. If you've ever subtly moved a piece of string and then hid it from view until you cat pounced, you know the low-tech premise behind Mousr well.
"A cat has the game in mind it wants to play," Friedman said. "That game is, 'I caught sight of the mouse and I don't think he saw me yet, so I'm going to hide and I'm going to watch.'"
For a lot of cats, the stealthy hunting approach works better than either humans or machines frantically waving toys around, which they may quickly adjust to and get bored with. They prefer the chase. But what's most important is considering your cat's individual needs.
"Sometimes we tend to get toys that we think are fun," said Pamela Perry, a resident at Cornell University's Hospital for Animals. "We've got to remember that we've got to tailor them to the cats' individual needs."
That's the trick for cat owners: figuring out what kinds of play their pets most enjoy. Maybe it's running and jumping, or maybe it's hiding and pouncing. Cats also have preferences for different features, like scratching pads, feathers, and bells. From there, it's about finding toys — in any price range, and at any level of technological innovation — that satisfy those needs, rather than trying to push cats toward activities that aren't as natural or enjoyable.
"A cat can't lie to you," Friedman said. "I can put a toy in front of a cat and he hates it and I can't be like, 'Well you really should like it, because we tried really hard to do this.'"
The challenges associated with getting cats engaged aren't unique to high-tech toys, McConnell said, and there are some basic principles to keep in mind that can get your cat moving. Incorporating food as positive reinforcement, observing your cat's natural behavior, and rotating which toys they have access to all promote increased engagement.
Safety concerns are pretty similar across the board, too: Read reviews of toys and watch how your cat plays with them, Perry said. Identifying causes for concern — like lasers, choking hazards, and crevices where paws may get stuck — is a good practice.
Pet owners with cash to spare might find it fun to mess around with fancier toys once they know what sorts of toys are best for their cats, but there's nothing wrong with sticking to the basics. Introducing high-tech toys might be a fun way for owners and cats to shake things up, but it's not a necessity for enhancing playtime.
"I caution people to not shell out large sums of money for something they don't know if their cat is going to be interested in," McConnell said, suggesting that pets probably aren't keeping up on the latest trends meant to entice them, anyway. "They don't read the chapters on cat behavior. They don't read marketing. Your friends' cats may adore some new $200 product, but your cat may not."