Play is a most notable feline activity, and wild cats play with as much eager enthusiasm as their domestic relatives. Because play is generally most pronounced in animal species where the young pass trough a relatively prolonged period of "childhood", carnivores, including cats, are among the most playful of mammals. Naturally, the young play more than the adults.
It is impossible to define purely playful activity, that is behaviour which is only to be observed as a form of recreation. For the cat, play blends naturally into rehearsal of the serious skills and behaviour patterns involved with hunting, killing, fighting and escaping. When kittens chase one another, the roles of pursuer and pursued switch frequently as the youngsters learn the essentials of a predator's life. With no prey available, somebody has to take on the part of the mouse - just as happens in children's games such as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians.
Although the games may be played with much verve and excitement, the essential principle of play is never lost - bites and scratches are never carried out at full force and injuries are very rare. Because the end point of a real hunt, the kill, does not happen in kitten's play, the various pre-kill phases of hunting and combat tend to be repeated over and over again with an animal playing, in quick succession, the roles of aggressor or defender, rival or prey.
However, there is never any component of fear or distress in any of the players. Indeed, one notable feature of feline play is the exuberant exaggertion of many of the movements in the playing. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the animals, apart from learning, derive real fun and enjoyment from their sporting.
Play relieves the frustrations of not being able, for some reason or another, to hunt. This is why cats sometimes play "cruelly" with live prey for some time before killing it. In the wild, cats hunt often and kill sometimes, whereas in the domestic situation, food (the kill) is readily available and hunting opportunities are scarce. So, to satisfy the age-old urge and inbuilt adaptations to hunt, the cat will stretch the "hunting phase" when it does come across a suitable victim.
The cubs of some car species rehearse in play certain features of adult behaviour that are specific to their kind. The youngsters of the black-footed cat and of the leopard, for instance, love to somersault as they play. This is a way of practicing the technique, needed by relatively light predators attacking much heavier prey, of clutching with forepaws, raking with hind claws and rolling over with their victim without losing their grip. Even more striking (literally) is the way cheetah cubs rehearse on one another the typical paw slap with which they will later fell a Thomson's gazelle.
Benefits of Playing
All this practice, practice, practice in play develops the young cats' experience of the external world and its physical laws. Through play, they learn how to time a punch; how far to jump to land on a moving object; how fast they mush run in order to intercept their prey; and other useful lesson of this kind.
For adult domestic cats, as well as for wild cats kept in zoos, play also relives frustration and can increase their contentment and interest in life. For these cats, food is regularly provided, without the need for a thrilling (and, in the wild, often fruitless) chase, so their powerful hunting instincts surface instead in the form of play. Such playing actually makes the animal more keen to eat, and makes what might otherwise be a monotonous and predictable meal more fun.
The moral of this is that you should play with your cat regularly. The playing of the domestic cat is not only a demonstration of hunting rituals, but is also useful in exercising and strengthening the growing cat.