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Why do Animals Like to Play?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is play behavior important in animals?

Play behavior is crucial for animals as it aids in the development of physical coordination and motor skills. According to studies in ethology, play also enhances cognitive abilities and helps young animals learn social cues and combat skills necessary for survival. Moreover, play can establish social bonds and hierarchies within groups, contributing to a well-functioning social structure.

Do all animals play the same way?

No, play behavior varies widely across species. Predatory animals often engage in play that mimics hunting behaviors, which helps them hone their predatory skills. Social animals, like primates and canines, frequently participate in interactive play that establishes social relationships and communication skills. Solitary species may engage in object play or self-play to stimulate their senses and maintain physical fitness.

Can play behavior in animals be seen as a sign of intelligence?

Play behavior can indeed be indicative of intelligence. Researchers have observed that animals with more complex neural structures and higher cognitive abilities, such as dolphins, crows, and primates, engage in more sophisticated forms of play. This complexity suggests that play is linked to problem-solving skills, adaptability, and learning capacity, which are hallmarks of intelligence.

How does play contribute to an animal's survival?

Play contributes to an animal's survival by preparing them for real-life scenarios. Through play, animals practice and refine skills like hunting, escaping predators, and fighting. According to evolutionary biologists, play also allows animals to experiment with behaviors in a low-risk setting, leading to better adaptability and resilience in changing environments.

Is there a correlation between the amount of play and the life stage of an animal?

Yes, there is a strong correlation between play and life stages. Juvenile animals typically play more than adults as it's a critical time for learning and development. However, adult animals do engage in play, which often serves to reinforce social bonds and relieve stress. The frequency and nature of play can also indicate an animal's health and well-being.

Does play behavior have any impact on an animal's mental health?

Play behavior has a significant impact on an animal's mental health. It provides an outlet for energy and stress, reducing anxiety and preventing boredom. Studies in animal behavior have shown that play can improve mood and overall well-being. In zoos, enrichment activities that encourage play are essential for maintaining the psychological health of animals in captivity.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to AllThingsNature, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By pastanaga — On Jan 12, 2014

@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?

By browncoat — On Jan 11, 2014

@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.

By irontoenail — On Jan 11, 2014

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.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to AllThingsNature, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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