Tag Archives: animal play

Animals and Play

Spent a lot of this holiday trying to find some new cat configuration that works in the household–nothing like a new feline to completely throw the established crew for a loop.

New kitten (still haven’t named her–the boys and I can’t agree on a name) is finally starting to get muscle tone back in her hind legs. I don’t know what the heck happened to the little muffin–if it was just starvation or if she had to hide for prolonged periods of time. Our idiot neighbors alternate between over-kenneling/neglecting their dogs and letting them run amok, and an abandoned eight-week-old kitten in this neighborhood would likely have to hide to survive.

I’ve spent some time playing with her the past few days in ways that encourage her to use her hind end, and I was struck once again by what a bonding experience play is. I’ve been playing with cats for most of my life–I can even remember my dad (typical engineer) giving me pointers on how to best play with cats when I was really little.  One of Dad’s favorite tactics was to cut the corners off a paper grocery sack and tip it on its side. Then all you need is a pencil or a ruler to wiggle in the holes. Guaranteed fun for cat and human alike–there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of not knowing where the cat is going to strike next.

I was shocked last night to realize that this little 9-10 week old kitten has already figured out that I am responsible for making interesting things happen. She hopped up on me and meowed, but after a couple of minutes it was clear she didn’t want to be petted, and I knew she’d just been fed. Finally I figured out she wanted me to play with her.  Smart little muffin indeed.

It’s also been very interesting to see the way my horses have matured as they’ve grown older, and I was thinking about the mental leaps that animals make while growing up that we either don’t notice or take for granted. I’ve written before about how I can sense the young mares are starting to feel responsible and protective of me in a way they haven’t been before. That’s a really nice feeling. Horses  enjoy play, too, and most horses seem to love having new and interesting things to do.  I’ve started to turn over some of the responsibility to them to see what they’d like to do when we’re together, now that we have good ground manners established. Sometimes their responses have been quite illuminating, like Friday trying to “open” the gate with her nose (after making sure I was watching what she was doing).

One of my biggest challenges the past few years has been to learn how to have a good time again. I had to be so directed and “on” all the time when I was raising the boys and running the newspaper that I forgot what it was like to have fun.  When I’d finally get the chance to have some time off,  I’d often feel like I was stuck in some kind of an unpleasant physical therapy session. “Having fun” had become a completely foreign concept to me. It was exactly like trying to lift something heavy with atrophied muscles.

Much has been written about the importance of play in brain development (I love Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human), but I’m not sure how much research has been conducted about how important play is for mental health.  Those of us who have had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet and/or who have been out of work know how awful it feels to not have time for play (or worse, how it feels to feel guilty about the fun we do manage to have).

And what is “play,” exactly? Well, for me, it’s doing something that enables me to completely forget about myself for a little while. Something that makes me forget my worries and feelings of inadequacy. Something that makes me live in the moment–when I am so completely absorbed that I don’t notice time passing.

I wonder how some of you other folks would define “fun” or “play” and what part you think it plays in your lives.  I’d be interested to hear what you think.






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