Rough and tumble: animal play

How and why do animals play?
26 August 2020

Interview with 

Sarah Heath, Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice


Three brown kittens sitting side by side, looking to their left


Why is play so important for the wellbeing of companion animals, like cats and dogs? Katie Haylor spoke to vet and behavioural medicine expert Sarah Heath...

Sarah - Play is hugely important for development as it is in human children. They’re not only rehearsing actual physical movement and developing physical responses. But also play is important in terms of emotional development. And when you’re playing in this intra-species way that you’re seeing in your kittens when they’re rough and tumbling around, they’re also learning how to read each other’s body language effectively. Social skills, through play. And also cognitive health - they’re learning what responses are successful. So play is crucial in their physical, cognitive and emotional development.

Katie - Watching my kittens grow, it’s evident to me that play can fall into different types, so first up I asked Sarah to break this down.

Sarah - So we talk about locomotory play, object play, social play. We can also define it in terms of its underlying motivation. And when we do that, we tend to use the concepts of Jaak Panksepp the Estonian biologist, who worked on affective systems in human animals and nonhuman animals and identified seven different systems, which are responsible for behavioural output. And of the ones that are important for play context, we've got the desire-seeking system, which is related to object play. And then we have the social play system related to that physical intra-specific form of play, where there's rehearsal of behavioural sequences, particularly threat sequences.

Katie - Ah, so would that be the difference between one of my cats pouncing on a ball and chasing the other one around?

Sarah - Absolutely. Yeah. So when the cat is playing with a toy, and cats are a lovely example of disaster seeking object play - predatory behavior is also desire-seeking motivated - when you see cats playing with objects, they are engaging in the same behavioural sequences as they use in predation. So we love to see that when we're playing with an object with these fishing rod type toys, where you stimulate the same motivation that you have with a bird flying through the air or a mouse running along the ground, pouncing, stalking ambushing. And then we also have the social play between cats. And social play is most effective and successful intra species because of the fact that social play is very contextual. So your kittens are rolling around with each other, or your puppies are engaging in this rough housing type play. And social play is important in rehearsing behaviours that are specific to the species. So it's important in learning how to communicate as a dog or as a cat. But also, very importantly, for rehearsing threat, both in terms of giving threat successfully, but also responding to threat successfully.

Threat is actually quite a difficult behaviour to reverse. As soon as you threaten another, then you have the risk that they're going to be motivated by fear-anxiety, and worried about the interaction. But if you have a safe context in which both individuals know that the threat that's being delivered is not real, then you can rehearse how to respond to it and how to perfect the giving of that threat without there being any detriment.

Katie - Is it possible to map those kinds of play behaviours onto different bits of the brain?

Sarah - This is an area that is massively increasing in the non-human animal world. A couple of areas that are very active at the moment in research are cognitive research in non-human animals. So trying to understand more about cognition. But also emotional research. So the seven systems I was talking about that Panksepp talks about in his research, looking at how we both protect ourselves emotionally, those are the negative emotions in Panksepp's model, fear, anxiety, frustration, panic, grief, pain. And then on the engaging side or positive emotions, we've got the desire seeking emotional system that drives us to gain access to those things we need in order to survive, the lust system, which kind of does what it says on the tin, the social play system with this ability to rehearse species-specific behaviours in a play context. And then you have the care system, which is the emotional drive that leads us to nurture others. And by us, I mean mammals, not just human animals. So those systems are the ones that we're talking about with Panksepp's model. And I think this is an area where we are really only beginning to start to put together the information we have about emotional systems. We know of course, about the role of the amygdala in the production of those responses. But actually getting to the point of dividing that up into specific behavioural responses is an area of quite active research.

Katie - Sarah explained that, unlike dogs and humans, cats are not what’s called socially obligate. So whereas a pooch needs social play throughout life, once cats get socially mature, between 2-3 years old, cats have a lowering of thier motivation for social play once they’re grown up.

And understanding differences like these is important. As Sarah told me the key to playing well with your pet is to respect that, as they are different species to us, they may play differently to us. It may sound obvious, but they're not little people, and playing with a dog like you're a dog, Sarah says, can lead to problems.

Sarah - The way we do that most successfully with non-human companions is using toys. And actually thereby creating object play rather than social play. So social engagement during play is different from social play. You can play socially with an object. So there are forms of team sport, which are object play, but have people involved. So tennis, for example, you're playing with objects, but you're playing with objects together. So there is a social component, but that social component is actually desire-seeking motivated, not social play motivated. You're still getting good social interaction, but there's not the scope for the confusion and the perception of threat from the animal.

Katie - Are there any consequences of lack of play in cats and dogs altogether? Just not enough?

Sarah - Yes, absolutely. And let's stick with your beloved species, the cat for a minute, they give a lovely example of this. They engage in predatory behaviour in order to actually kill, consume, eat, etc. But they also have a requirement for playing in that style. So it's not just predation for the purpose of actually getting to the point of killing and consumption, but also as a way of rehearsing the skills that are necessary for that. So if they don't have enough outlets for predatory style, so desire-seeking, motivated, object play, then we have a couple of possible consequences. One of them is that they lose confidence. And we can use object play in cats to boost self-confidence as well. But remembering that the object play is different again for cats than it is for people in things like duration. So cats engage in object play for very short bursts, often between one and five minutes. People can interpret that as disinterest. Whereas actually, yes, he is interested. That's good quality play for a cat, one to two minutes! And so we find that unfortunately, kittens who are more motivated to engage in the play and sometimes do it for longer, and you tend to go, "Oh, they love playing. So we'll play with them". And when they get to be adults and they're only doing it for one or two minutes, they go, "Oh, she doesn't really like it. I won't bother anymore". And so we see a lot of adult cats who don't actually get sufficient opportunity for play.

Katie - Do you think that play can tell us anything about the emotional relationship, or maybe bond is a better word, between pets and their owners? Because of course it's non, I guess the majority of it, is nonverbal.

Sarah - Yes. The quality of play, definitely, has some link to the caring relationship. The care or nurturing part of the relationship. And that's why, again, play in adult dogs and cats is different. Because the basis of the relationship is also different in an obligate social adult and a non obligate social adult. You're going to have a different basis of the relationship as well. So a human-dog relationship into adulthood has a caring component, a nurturing component to it, which is not as evident. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but not as evident in the adult-cat relationship. One of the things we do with our domestic cats, particularly here in the UK, is that we pre-puberty newter them. So that influences their emotional development of course, and their transition from kittenhood into adulthood emotionally. So we're going to have some extension of juvenile behavioural responses into adulthood that you wouldn't see if that cat was entire and was not in a domestic environment. So there are some complications, if you like.

So, yes, it is an indicator of the relationship. And it can also be a way of improving the relationship, particularly in dogs. One of the things that's also important to remember is that when play is appropriate, as in it's stimulating, or it's being motivated by the social play system, the desire-seeking system. We also need to remember that we have to consider the aspect of arousal as well, quantity of emotional input, that's happening for that individual during play. And that can be somewhere where we can get problems, because if you have a low level of emotional capacity, and the play you're engaging in is highly arousing, that can actually be emotionally detrimental. Not because it's a protective emotion, it's still an engaging emotion, but because the arousal level is incompatible with the individual's emotional capacity.

Katie - You mean if, say, it's just all a bit too overwhelming for your pet and they, perhaps they freak out and end up scratching you or something like that?

Sarah - Yeah. Two things can happen that make it then become detrimental. Yes, there is a situation where you can be engaging in a play interaction, which is either diesire-seeking or social. And then for some reason, either you get overwhelmed by the level of arousal and you no longer have the capacity to cope with that. And therefore you kick into feeling overwhelmed and therefore protective, and then you become repelling in your behaviour to make that stop. Or, perhaps more commonly in the play context, you actually start to get frustration building up, because the play is not succeeding for some reason, maybe because the communication breaks down between the two individuals and the play is not successful, then frustration would become involved. And frustration is also characterised by confrontational behaviour. So you can get actually confrontational or repelling behavioural responses coming out of what was a play context.

Katie - So my kittens are playing together a lot right now, and this will likely change as they get older. But what about elderly pets. Do they still need play? And how do you cater for this, whilst accommodating age related changes?

Sarah - If we sit with the social obligate dog for a minute, and then we need to think about whether there are physical health issues, which mean that mobility associated with play may be difficult. And therefore we need to make sure they can play without moving about too much or without putting strain on joints, etc. We also might need to think about cognitive decline and therefore that may have influenced their ability to read context. So in dogs particularly, they may find it more difficult to engage in social play as they get older if they have some form of cognitive compromise.

And then in cats, we need to remember that probably what we're looking at for them is more object play than social play. And we need to remember the fact that their bodies can be struggling. Particularly we know osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, is incredibly common in cats over 92, 93% of cats over the age of 12 will have some form of osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease. So therefore are likely to have some element of chronic pain. So yes, the way we play with them is going to be different. Because we want to engage them in object play to have those senses, their sight and their hearing, still engaged, but not wanting to instill high levels of actual physical movement.


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