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Why do Pets like to play?

by Coffee Table Science
Isn't it strange where cats and kittens will f...
Isn’t it strange where cats and kittens will find to sleep and play? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have cats at home, I love cats, and am a self proclaimed animal activist, who loves her quadruped counterpart than watching humans play. But the idea of play I have come to believe is not universal. When I do catch a trail of ants, or the occasional team of ants scouting the place for left over cat food, I can’t help but think that they are probably having a fun time looking around, and contrary to popular scientific belief, I do think they kinda like to waste time goofing around, when the food is right there in front of them. But then again, that is my opinion, which has no scientific evidence, and need not be taken seriously.

So, if you have cats at home or are fortunate enough to have seen cats playing you would see that it greatly resembles their hunting behaviour. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that play hones the kittens hunting skills so that they grow up to become mean killing machines. And that is definitely true, after I saw one of my kittens take down a very testy fly, that came swarming into the house (might I bring to your notice, it was one of those huge flies that make the buzzing sound- not the regular house fly variety that is small). In what was very much play behaviour; the kitten took down, what may not be big and mighty- but definitely faster and much more agile than my naive kitten. The reward was, the dead fly that she happily gobbled and went to her perch for a celebratory groom session. Much like the felines, canines too start young. If you have a dog at home, you know just too well, that when the forelegs are extended and the rump is in the air, your dog is in the mood to play. 

Dog playing GIF. Source: www.giphy.com
A common occurrence in every house that has a dog

So why do they animals engage in play?

Probably, because they have too much time on hand. Like toddlers who run around the house whole day, our pets are animal toddlers who don’t seem to have much to do, which is why they keep playing. But contrary to my belief, this is far from the truth. This “Play Bow”- as researchers  and behaviorists call it is not just restricted to the urban landscape.

Tiger playing with dog

Play behaviour is not only seen in our house kitten, but  in larger kittens- I mean cats as well. One thing is for certain that this play behaviour seems to be common with, most animals, and one can safely presume, is evolutionary. So could it be, keeping my theory in mind, that animals in the wild, also, like their more docile counter parts in our homes, have a lot of time to kill in the wild as well?

Researchers have observed that this behaviour tends to manifest itself, when resources are at a high, life, in other words, is comfortable, and non  threatening- no impending doom situation, and when the animal is completely bored (yes you read it right,  bored). Much like small children, when animals are bored, and have nothing better to do, they indulge in play, as simple as that. In fact it was during one of these ‘whether to call it play or not behavior’ that Jaak Pankseep, a neuroscientist found out that rats actually laughed. He observed that his lab rats produced this high pitch sound only when they were at play.

This is also true with Porbeagle sharks, which are studied at the ReefQuest Center for Shark research. These sharks observed at the Cornish Coast, showed repetitive behaviour, rolling while swimming and interaction with manmade and natural objects. In fact many sport fishers are well aware of the curiosity of these guys. The mere repetitive nature of the actions was a hint that this was a frivolous activity that didn’t lead to any attainable goal- or in other words – play. (You might want to go Reef Quest Research Centre website to read more about these fascinating fish). Among fish, it is not just the Porbeagle sharks that have a frivolous nature, cichlids have also been observed to keep themselves entertained in aquariums found playing with the thermometers in the tank.

 Here is a great video to show you how playful they can get.

If that amazes you, wait till you hear this. For all those who believe that reptiles are the quintessential cold blooded species, think again. Researchers have observed that when the environment is stress free, Monitor lizards engage in what can only be called – an identity crisis, where these huge lizards have engaged in shaking shoes, and even retrieving soda can like dog often do. Even salt water crocodiles and turtles have shown to love playing with a tethered ball (Burghart 2014).

Which brings me to the primary question, were those ants I was staring at, playing? And how exactly do you know if what they were doing constituted as play. While identifying play behaviour may be easy in mammals, who is to say that the same behaviour constitutes as play in insects? It is a growing consensus in the scientific community, that the older definition of play may not be universal enough to describe what constitutes as play (say we encounter aliens who just want to play and be friendly and we stand guarded with our guns).

Our inherent need to humanize things and for this matter even play, and what we deem as play, which is in turn representative of what we do as play, does not constitute play. 

Too much? Well, this is why Burghardt, put forth a new definition of play which said- “play is repetitive, may not seem to have any function, and is indulged in when the animal is most relaxed and in a low stress environment”

To know that we (as in first, human and then mammals) presumed to have had the exclusive right to play, is both astonishing and humbling. We are now coming to learn that we (citizens of earth) are not very different from each other. Who knows someone might (or already has) discovered that plants have a way with play as well. So the answer to my question, probably YES, what those ants were doing may just have been goofy good old school ant fun play, before going back inside their tiny hole to get the others to pick the food up.

For now, I’m comfortable with that.


Burghardt, G. (2014). A Brief Glimpse at the Long Evolutionary History of Play Animal Behavior and Cognition, 2 (2) DOI: 10.12966/abc.05.01.2014

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