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Kitty Fitness

Your cat needs exercise to stay healthy and fit, but she probably doesn't need much help getting it.

Everyone knows that dogs need regular exercise, but cats require movement just as much as their canine counterparts do. Here are some compelling reasons to keep your cat moving.

Physical Payoffs

  • Physical activity will help keep your cat healthy. Muscles that aren't used grow weak, leaving the animal more susceptible to illness.
  • Exercise wards off obesity, a widespread problem among cats as well as humans. A Cornell University follow-up to a landmark feline-obesity study found that about 25 percent of cats seen in U.S. veterinary practices were described as "heavy" or "obese." Their extra weight increased the cats' risk of such serious ailments as diabetes; lameness caused by joint diseases or muscle injury; and non-allergenic skin conditions, possibly caused by the cats' inability to groom themselves properly.

Mental and Social Benefits

  • Active play teaches your cat social skills for relating to people and other animals.
  • Regular activity can prevent or solve behavior problems by keeping your cat's mind occupied and allowing her to work off energy that she might otherwise use destructively around the house.

The Outdoor Cat

Cats that are allowed outdoors even part of the time usually manage to get sufficient exercise on their own. Running around the yard or garden, hunting prey such as birds and rodents, and climbing trees gives them a good workout. Of course, these benefits must be weighed against the dangers that cats face outdoors, such as cars and aggressive animals.

For cats, exercise equals play. Your cat can get her workout by engaging in either of two types of play, or a combination of both.

Social Play

This type of play involves frolicking with other cats -- or with people. If you're able to keep more than one cat, you'll never have to give another thought to their exercise needs. Two or more cats will stay limber by chasing each other around the house and engaging in friendly wrestling matches. Without a feline companion, your cat will rely on you to be her playmate.

Object Play

This form of play consists of chasing, batting at, and climbing into or over toys or other inanimate objects. If you join in, the object play will become social as well. Here are some common playthings that may amuse your cat and will provide valuable exercise:

  • Toy fishing poles or "dancer" toys. These generally consist of a flexible rod, a string, and at the end of it, a feather or piece of fabric that bobs around, tempting the cat to chase it and bat at it.
  • Small stuffed animals. These "mouse substitutes" allow your cat to exercise her prey-catching instincts. Make sure they are stuffed with something that won't harm your cat if she tears the covering with her teeth or claws. Toys stuffed with catnip are especially appealing.
  • Scratching posts. Besides keeping your cat's claws in shape and off the furniture, a scratching post lets her exercise her entire upper body as she stretches her back and extends her legs to paw at the post.
  • Feline furniture. "Kitty condos" and other small furnishings made especially for cats will give your pet ample opportunity to jump and climb. If you or another cat join in, they can also be the setting for a lively game of hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo. As a bonus, these may be covered in carpeting or sisal, providing an extra scratching surface for your cat.
  • Boxes and bags. Like children, cats will often ignore elaborate toys and instead choose to play with the most mundane objects. Empty cardboard boxes can become favorite places to hide, climb, and play; so can empty shopping bags. For safety's sake, make sure any bag your cat plays with is big enough that she won't get stuck in it, and snip off the handles so there's no danger of strangulation.

Cat Walks

Dogs typically get their exercise from a daily walk. Believe it or not, some cats -- though far from all -- also perk up at the sight and sound of a leash.

Leading Leash Candidates

Cats who walk willingly on a leash are generally introduced to the idea as kittens. In addition, some "doglike" breeds tend to be more amenable than others to wearing a leash. The most likely leash-wearers are:

  • Siamese
  • Burmese
  • Russian Blue
  • Colorpoint Shorthair
  • Oriental Shorthair

Harness Up

Because cats have delicate necks, it's best to attach a leash to a harness that fits over the chest rather than to a collar. The harness should fit snugly but be loose enough for you to slip one finger under a strap.

Training Tips

  • Start out indoors. Practice in the safe and familiar environs of your own home before taking your cat outside on a leash.
  • Slip on the harness, attach the leash, and gently hold the leash while you follow your cat as she walks around.
  • Treat it as a fun game, not a chore, and don't put any pressure on your pet. Praise and reward her for each successful leash session, but don't punish her if she doesn't like the leash. Cats will either take willingly to a leash or not. If your cat has no interest in being harnessed and taken for a stroll, don't force her -- drop the idea.
  • Don't expect the leash to enable you to control your cat's movements, as it would with a dog. Even though you're holding the leash, your cat is actually walking you -- you're just following her lead. If you need to get her out of harm's way quickly, scoop her up and carry her.
  • Don't expect to train your cat to eliminate outside while on the leash, as dogs do. The litter box is still a necessity; your walks are just for fun.
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