Cats are born gymnasts. They manage to achieve incredible acrobat feats, just in the course of their everyday lives. Leaping up on top of a wall, elegantly balancing as they walk across the roof of the shed, picking their way along the edge of a fence like a tightrope walker, squeezing through a tiny gap in the hedge.
Cats always seem supremely confident in their physical ability, looking around in a regal manner as they put one paw in front of the other, poised at all times.
Why cats need exercise
A cat probably wouldn’t consider that it was exercising as it went about its daily activities. Possibly because the word ‘exercise’ implies effort, which doesn’t quite fit with the world view of the felines we know and love.
But your cat does need exercise in order to keep their cardiovascular system in good shape, stay at a healthy weight, maintain strong muscles and help their joints stay mobile.
Exercise is also important for your cat’s mental stimulation, helping them to stay interested in the world around them.
From kitten to cat
As to how much exercise your cat needs, this varies according to the stage of their life and their level of mobility.
Kittens are hyperactive bundles of fluff who see your home as one huge, exciting activity centre. As they age, though, your cat will slow down and be less tempted to treat every piece of furniture as an irresistible hiking challenge.
Fitting in exercise around snoozing
Cats also have to factor in a good deal of snoozing every day. On average, cats sleep for 18 hours a day, while kittens sleep even longer – around 20 hours. Our feline friends sleep so long because they’re still hard-wired to be predators. In the wild, they would have slept all day then gone out hunting at night. They no longer need to hunt for their food, but they’ve preserved that instinct for extended snoozes.
This means that any exercise they take has to fit in around those all-important catnaps in your favourite armchair.
How far does your cat roam?
When your cat does decide to leave that armchair, where do they go and what do they do?
A BBC 2 programme, The Secret Life of the Cat, attached GPS devices and tiny ‘cat cams’ to the collars of various cats in Surrey and watched to discover where they went and what they got up to. They found that the cats often roamed around 150 metres (500 feet) from home, covering several acres of land each day.
Meanwhile, an Australian study found that cats can wander up to 30 kilometres (18 miles) a week, which works out at over 2.5 miles a day.
How much exercise is enough?
Some cats may be striding out and covering a few miles a day, but the consensus seems to be that, on average, cats need around 30 minutes of daily exercise.
If you have an outdoor cat, you probably don’t need to worry too much about them getting their daily dose of exercise. You can be pretty sure that your cat will be out there, testing their jumping, climbing and stalking skills to the max.
On the other hand, if your cat mostly lives indoors, you may need to engage them in two or three play sessions each day to ensure that they’re getting enough exercise.
How to encourage your cat to exercise
It’s rare to see a cat on a leash, and there’s a reason for that. It doesn’t come naturally to most felines to be dragged around on a lead. So, leaving that option aside, let’s look at some other, more successful ways to exercise your cat.
1. Give your cat a tower to climb
Cats love to be up high, looking down on the world. Encourage them to exercise by climbing up a cat tower or tree. There are some wonderfully inventive designs available, and you can even design your own bespoke tower to suit your cat’s specific needs and desires.
2. Play with a catnip toy
Cats just can’t resist the alluring aroma of catnip. Apparently, it’s something to do with the ‘nepetalactone’ compound it contains. When your cat inhales this magic ingredient, it sets off the pleasure centres in their brain. So it figures that if you add catnip to a toy, you’re doubling the chances that your cat will engage in playful exercise. We recommend getting your cat to leap into action with a catnip toy in the shape of a fish or a mouse.
3. Lure them with a fishing pole toy
Attach a ball, feather or other toy to a cat fishing pole, dangle it in front of your cat and let them play chase. Make sure you allow them to catch their prey every now and then so they feel as though they’re winning. Keep the toy safely out of reach when exercise time is over to avoid it becoming a choking hazard.
4. Give them a cardboard box
Never underestimate the old-fashioned fun that your cat can get from jumping into and out of a cardboard box. It costs you nothing and your cat will have hours of pleasure from stalking the box, investigating what can possibly be going on inside (nothing), jumping out with a fright (at nothing), then starting all over again.
5. Play catch with string
While we’re talking about affordable, low-tech ideas, how about a piece of string? Simply drag it along the floor and let your cat chase it, pounce and catch it. By playing together with your cat, you can help to improve the bond between the two of you – all while your feline friend is getting their daily exercise.
Also, check out our article on how to exercise your older cat for some games specifically targeted at senior feline citizens.
Feed their animal instincts
The PDSA recommends giving your cat short 5-10 minute bursts of exercise and feeding them soon after the play session ends, so that the food acts as a reward. And don't forget adding supplements at mealtimes can help promote better cat health including reduced stiffness, increased mobility and healthier skin and fur.