Can Cats Actually Play Fetch?

Your cat might surprise you ... 🎾

cat with soccer ball

If you have a cat, you know they can be pretty playful — pouncing on toy mice, jumping on cat trees, hiding in boxes. And playing with your cat is a great way to bond with him. But have you ever wondered if your cat can play fetch?

Yes, cats can fetch, and you can teach your cat to fetch too (it’s not just for dogs)!

The Dodo spoke to LeeAnna Buis, a certified feline training and behavior consultant with Feline Behavior Solutions, to find out everything you need to know about cats and playing fetch.

Why do cats fetch?

While cats aren’t exactly known for playing fetch, fetching actually mimics a cat’s natural instincts — stalking, hunting and pouncing.

“[Dogs are] often motivated by simply getting the reward of a positive reaction from their human,” Buis told The Dodo. “Your cat’s natural instincts lean more toward chasing than retrieving, as they would when hunting prey.”

So while fetch is known to be a dog’s game, cats can naturally play fetch too.

“A cat’s prey drive often makes it difficult for them to resist prey-like movements,” Buis said. “In the case of tossing a furry mouse or other toy, you’re essentially making that toy move like prey would, flying through the air like a bird or insect.”

If your cat fetches on his own already, he might have learned to fetch as a way to continue the play session — if he wants you to keep throwing his toy, he’ll have to bring it back to you.

“If a cat is returning to you with their toy, it’s probably because they’ve figured out that’s the best way to get you to keep throwing it or because you’ve trained them to do so (even if you didn’t realize it),” Buis said.

But if your cat doesn’t fetch on his own, it’s probably possible to teach him!

How to teach your cat to fetch

Yes, you can actually teach your cat to fetch! Contrary to popular belief, it’s not that hard to teach a cat tricks — training a cat is very similar to the way you would train a dog.

“Cats are highly trainable and can be taught to fetch,” Buis said. “With cats, it’s a barter system: ‘You (the cat) do X, and I (the human) will return the favor by doing Y.’ If the Y is something your cat really enjoys, like a favorite treat or petting session, they’ll agree to the arrangement, and you can use this to train a behavior.”

If you just follow a few steps, your cat will be fetching in no time.

Find the right time and place

When you decide to teach your cat to fetch, choose a time that’s convenient for your cat (e.g., not during naptime). Make sure to do it during a time when he’s already feeling playful so he’ll be more receptive to learning a new game.

Any time you’re teaching your cat something new, you should be in an area without a lot of distractions. If you try to do it around his food or lots of other toys, he might not be too inclined to pay attention to what you’re trying to show him.

Pick a toy your cat likes and call him to you

The easiest way to train your cat to fetch is to call your cat to you when he’s holding a toy he loves.

“If they come straight to you with the toy, pile on the praise and reward them with a treat right away,” Buis said. “Do this five to 10 times, and your cat will start to associate bringing you the toy with getting a reward.”

(These catnip fish toys are a great choice if you need a high-value toy to get your cat started. They earned The Dodo’s Paw of Approval from a bunch of picky cats. They’re made of durable cotton fabric and filled with catnip to get your cat excited to play with them.)

Reward your cat for each step

If that method doesn’t work, you can teach your cat to fetch more gradually. This way involves rewarding your cat step by step until he’s a pro at fetching.

“If the simple approach doesn’t work, you can still train your cat to fetch,” Buis said. “It just involves a little more time and patience, rewarding them for each step in the right direction. If they happen to be clicker trained, click when they pick [the toy] up and reward. From there, you slowly shape this natural behavior into the full behavior you want, rewarding picking up the toy, then looking at you while holding it, then taking a step toward you, two steps, three and so on, until they’re fetching.”

Your cat will form a positive association between bringing his toy to you and the rewards you’ve given him. Give him lots of reinforcement, and eventually he’ll fetch his toy without any treats needed.

Name the game

When you throw the toy, say “Fetch, kitty!” or something similar. Your cat will begin to recognize the phrase and associate it with chasing and retrieving his toy.

So yes, cats can fetch! Next time you’re having playtime with your cat, try bringing out the catnip toys and treats and teach your cat a new trick.

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