Why do Animals Like to Play?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Dogs love squeaky toys that sound like wounded prey.
Dogs love squeaky toys that sound like wounded prey.

Animals like to play for many of the same reasons human children and adults like to play. Physical play helps to reduce stress levels, and most animals in the wild are constantly under stress, either to hunt for food or avoid being hunted. Any opportunity to spend a few worry-free minutes engaged in mindless play is an opportunity worth taking in the animal world. Spending an entire day in a state of tense watchfulness, which many prey animals do, can be very damaging to an animal's nervous system and mental acuity. Play also helps animals form stronger bonds with their pack or owners.

Guinea pigs like to play games that mimic their hiding instincts.
Guinea pigs like to play games that mimic their hiding instincts.

Another reason animals like to play is to keep their natural survival skills sharp. What owners may consider playful activity is actually an instinctive behavior to a pet, such as climbing trees, pouncing on toys and running after humans. A dog with a strong herding instinct, for example, will engage in a type of play that involves "herding" their "family members." A cat will pounce on a small toy because that is the same action he or she would use to trap a real prey animal in the wild.

Climbing trees is more about a cat's instincts than about it playing.
Climbing trees is more about a cat's instincts than about it playing.

Guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils and other prey animals like to play games which mimic their natural escape and hiding instincts. A prey animal kept as a pet will often scurry into a tube or a habitat home as a way to keep his or her escape instincts sharp. Climbing over objects and finding new places to hide are also part of both prey and predator animals' play, since a predator animal uses stealth to hunt and a prey animal uses camouflage to hide.

Cats enjoy toys that mimic the action of something they might chase.
Cats enjoy toys that mimic the action of something they might chase.

Cat toys and dog toys are often designed to mimic their natural food sources or prey. Predator animals like to play with toys that react like the real thing, such as a squeaky mouse-shaped toy that duplicates the sound of an injured or dying animal. The texture or shape of a dog or cat toy could also be very appealing to a pet who still has the natural instincts of its breed to chew, scratch or trap. Playing with these toys helps a pet to satiate these natural urges without causing significant damage to real humans or other pets.

Some animals like to play because it keeps them in good physical condition. A prey animal may have to run great distances at top speed in order to avoid a predator. A predator animal may have to chase his or her prey at top speed until it is captured. By using an exercise wheel or running in the backyard, a pet can maintain good cardiovascular health and improve its stamina. Physical play with human owners and other animals helps to establish stronger social bonds, which many pack animals crave naturally.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular AllThingsNature contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular AllThingsNature contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

pastanaga

@browncoat - It always amazes me how little we actually know about a lot of animals. We are still discovering so much about them. And that is one of the saddest things about the fact that so many animals face extinction. They are often sensitive creatures who are capable of being playful.

I've even read a study where scientists tickled young rats and realized that they were laughing and enjoyed the game. Rats aren't in any danger of extinction, but how many other species could we possibly share a joke with, if they aren't wiped off the earth?

browncoat

@irontoenail - I wonder if they pretend to be hurt in order to encourage that behavior though. I've noticed when I'm playing with a new kitten or puppy that it's important to show that you're hurt if they play-bite at you (even if you aren't), and withdraw, so that they learn limits. If they aren't given a mild consequence for biting, just like they might from their parents or siblings, than they grow up thinking that biting is OK.

I've seen the theory that different kinds of wildlife will pretend to be hurt in order to encourage their cubs, but I suspect they are pretending to be hurt in order to discourage them from biting their parents, before they get big enough for it to actually hurt.

irontoenail

I think people, particularly children, evolved a love of play for basically the same reasons. Learning is probably the most important. You can see this in young children very easily, as most of their play involves exploring the world around them, in much the same way as young animals behave.

Apparently adult animals will play with their kids in the same way humans might. Even wild animals, like lions, will pretend to be hurt if they are bitten by their little ones in order to encourage them to be strong.

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    • Dogs love squeaky toys that sound like wounded prey.
      By: Zharastudio
      Dogs love squeaky toys that sound like wounded prey.
    • Guinea pigs like to play games that mimic their hiding instincts.
      By: Belkin & Co
      Guinea pigs like to play games that mimic their hiding instincts.
    • Climbing trees is more about a cat's instincts than about it playing.
      By: Stanisław Tokarski
      Climbing trees is more about a cat's instincts than about it playing.
    • Cats enjoy toys that mimic the action of something they might chase.
      By: Benjamin Simeneta
      Cats enjoy toys that mimic the action of something they might chase.