Cats do weird things sometimes, much to the humans' delight. Cat companions have learned to cope with the scratching and the yowling, and we're nearly comfortable with that thing where they sprint into the room, scramble around and then race back out for no reason. True ailurophiles even like it when their kitties drop "presents" in their shoes.
There is, however, one cat behavior that even veteran cat-lovers may not have thought about. Almost every cat does it, it's practically the first thing they learned as kittens, but it's so common we take it for granted. It's actually pretty weird behavior though if you give it some thought. Surely there must be some explanation for it.
Basically, what's with the string?
Cats are felines from the order Carnivora, which is where the word carnivore comes from. Cats' ancestors all ate meat, and all of their living cousins do it now. While your kitty might enjoy shredding your house plants for a snack, nearly all the food cats eat is meat-based. Of course, prey doesn't deliver itself on a saucer in nature. That's why cats have had to evolve a prey-hunting instinct that comes out sometimes.
Cats don't eat string, of course. At least they're not supposed to. But they're still going to pounce on things for fun, mainly because the instinct to hunt is actually separate from the need to eat for cats. You've probably noticed this if you've ever seen your feline hunter scrambling after a mouse or a fly, finally catching it, and then just letting it go. The best-fed kitty in the world still needs to chase things.
String scratches a lot of the itch cats have for a pounce-toy. It's small, can move fast to catch their attention, and is likely to take odd hops and keep them guessing about where to pounce. The flailing, unpredictable way the end of a string drags across the floor is something like the cat equivalent of a pinball table. They don't know where that ball is going next, but they can't turn away from it.
You don't have to pull the string to keep most cats interested. It's a routine for many people living with kitties to find all their yarn in tangled heaps because Mr. Meow found the knitting... again. To understand this, remember cats live in a world of smell and touch as much as sight. Yarn is soft and smells like sweaters to a cat. It's bouncy and tumbles all over. Even alone, cats can still love it.
Many house cats don't get enough exercise. Just as the stalking and pouncing instincts are always there for your cat, so is the urge to stretch their legs and get moving. At least, it is during the eight hours a day when they aren't sleeping. Almost anything will do for an exercise toy, but string is lightweight, it tumbles around easily, and it's easy to drag around the boxes they've commandeered in the living room.
String can stand up to a lot of biting and scratching since it tends to slide right between cats' claws and teeth. From kittens to grizzled old toms, felines have the same impulse to scratch, as you may have noticed if you have upholstered furniture. Playing with string helps cats get their claws out for a good scratch in ways that don't make the humans yell at them from across the room.
As much fun as your cats can have nibbling at string, keep an eye on how hard they're actually biting it. A lot of house cats have gingivitis, which appears as a red line on the gums under the teeth. This itches and burns, and cats will chew on all sorts of things to make it stop. If your cat seems to be dragging the string across the gum line, bring it up with the vet.
Gingivitis isn't the only reason a cat might bite string. Hairballs are part of the fun of living with cats, and in nature, it's just something they have to do. To help bring up the fur, cats will often eat something else indigestible, like grass or plastic, and string fits the bill nicely. Watch for biting with the back incisors, which cats use like scissors to cut and swallow string.
String has a strong upside as a toy for cats, but it's not the only thing they can use to get serious playtime. If your fuzzy buddy is in a mood and you're fresh out of string, start the play with almost anything else that's safe, flops around, and can survive teeth and claws. Laser beams are a perennial favorite, as are feathers, ribbons, and tennis balls.
As much fun as your cat companion has playing with string, don't count yourself out of the equation. Cats have funny ways of showing it, but they really do like the humans who care for them. For most cats, especially those you've known for years, having a good string-chasing session is fun because it's quality time they get to spend with you, their favorite human.
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