Yes, Cats Will Play Fetch, Too—But Only If They Feel Like It

Cats have some very specific expectations when it comes to engaging in the game.
Cats play fetch on their own terms.
Cats play fetch on their own terms. / Joey Kotfica/Moment Mobile via Getty Images

Dog owners often boast about their pets being more engaged in playful behavior, like fetching or dragging an enormous stick back home. But there is mounting evidence that cats are happy to run and retrieve objects, too. Just don’t expect them to do it on your terms.

A new research paper published in Scientific Reports examined feline behavior observed by 924 cat owners from around the world who responded to an online questionnaire. The self-reported data gave insight into fetching habits in a total of 1154 cats.

The responses demonstrated that 48 percent of cats initiated games of fetch, with only 22 percent picking up on a human’s attempt to engage in play. Virtually all cats were never taught how to play: the act of sprinting after a thrown object and bringing it back seemed to be innate rather than acquired.

It appears cats enjoy the act—but why? For dogs, it might be connected to wanting to please their owner, a concept that cats would likely scoff at. Instead, it might activate prey instinct, or might merely be a fascination with the thrown object, typically a spherical item or toy.

According to Elizabeth Renner, a study author and psychologist at Northumbria University, it might also come down to simple play preference. “Some humans might prefer to play football and some like to play golf,” Renner told The Washington Post. “Some cats just prefer to play fetch.”

Even if a cat enjoys fetch, there’s no guarantee they’ll agree with the specifics. Some cats refused to engage if the object wasn’t thrown far enough away; other cats would play only in specific rooms of a house or if a specific toy in a specific color was used.

Toy size is also apparently critical. Said one respondent of a pom pom toy: “The size of the pom pom is important. I bought a larger pom pom and she rejected it. I've also tried small items approximately the same size as the pom pom and she rejects those as well.”

They also prefer to decide when they’re done. Most cats in the survey opted to end the fetching session rather than wait for the owner to move on.

[h/t Smithsonian]