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Play itself is difficult to define although often readily recognisable. Episodes of play behaviour typically seem to be performed for their own sake rather than in order to fulfil a specific biological need (Mills, 2010).
Burghardt (2005) proposes that play can be identified via five criteria:
It is not completely functional in either form or context;
It is spontaneous;
It includes modified forms of the behaviours it imitates;
It is repeated in the same form throughout the lifecycle of the animal;
It primarily occurs when the animal if fed, healthy and free of stress.
Play is frequently divided into two categories based on the target involved and its visual appearance (Fraser, 2012; Bradshaw, Casey and Brown, 2012; Mills, 2010; Rochlitz, 2007; Beaver, 2003; Bradshaw, 2000; Turner & Bateson, 2000):
Object play – play behaviours that are targeted towards an inanimate object. This involves a behavioural repertoire typical of food procurement (Mills, 2010). In the cat object play behaviours can therefore look very similar to predatory behaviours.
Social play – this may be considered ‘rough and tumble’ play (Panksepp, 1998) that usually occurs with a conspecific. Behaviour patterns from a variety of behavioural systems including aggressive, sexual and parental behaviour may be included (Mills, 2010).
A third category of play is also described but frequently referred to in a variety of terms. These are outlined below under the heading of ‘Self play’:
Self play – play behaviours that do not appear to be social or directed at an obvious inanimate or animate object. Fraser (2012) refers to solitary play and its possible role in the development of motor activity, exercise provision and satisfaction due to energy expenditure (Levine et al, 1980; Martin & Bateson, 1985) as well as providing an opportuntity to prepare for the unexpected (Spinka et al, 2001). Bradshaw (2000) refers to self-directed play, for example tail-chasing. Mills (2010) describes locomotor play - behaviours that appear to have no target (animate or inanimate) and that typically consist of bouts of the faster paced locomotory behaviours, frequently performed with heightened excitement - commenting this is most likely to be seen in species subject to predation. Finally, Beaver (2003) describes ‘hallucinatory’ play where the cat seems to bat, chase or leap at ‘imaginary’ objects or become highly aroused and run around wildly, often in the evening.
In addition, many species including cats show self-directed play such as tail-chasing. Some authors consider this analogous to locomotor play, but it may be more similar in function to object play.
During play, cats appear aroused with wide eyes, pupils dilated.
This ethogram divides play into three board categories:
Object play – as described above
Social play – as described above
Self play – this encompasses all solitary play behaviours including locomotor and self-directed behaviours.
*Photographic images and video coming soon
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