How Do Cats Learn to Play Fetch?

Caitlin Dempsey


Little tabby kitten carrying feathers in its mouth.

Playing fetch is more of a trait associated with dogs. Most dogs love to race after a tossed tennis ball, bring it back to you for you to toss the ball all over again. Unlike dogs, cats are not inherently predisposed to play fetch with their owners, a behavior often associated with retrieving dog breeds like the Golden Retriever and Labradors.

Cats fetching is not as common. In all the years of having cats, from my childhood and well into adulthood, I can remember a grand total of one of our cats that knew how to fetch. He would bring me his mouse toy and I would toss it. He learned that I would continue tossing the mouse for as long as he was willing to come over to wherever I was and drop it in front of me.

What is fetching?

In play, fetching is the act of throwing an object, like a ball for a dog or a toy mouse for a cat. The animal then runs after the thrown object, picks it up with their mouth, and returns the object to the owner.

Little tabby kitten carrying feathers in its mouth.
Some cats like to play fetch. Photo: © rhoenes.

Cat fetching survey

So how do some cats learn to fetch? New research that’s currently under review seeks to answer that. Researchers from the University of Sussex and Northumbria University surveyed 924 owners of 1,154 cats to find out if their feline companions liked to play fetch and how the skill to fetch came about.

Each pet owner was asked to fill out a survey for each cat that they either currently own or have owned in the past. The survey asked 23 questions that covered topics like intentional training, the types of objects fetched, who initiates and concludes fetching sessions, and the frequency of fetching activities. Additionally, there were two open-ended questions for detailed responses about training methods or the initial observation of fetch behavior. The survey also gathered data on the cat’s demographics (age, gender, neutering status, breed, living in a multi-cat household) and owner/household demographics (location, household size, owner’s age and gender, presence of dogs or other pets) at the time the fetching behavior was first noticed.

How common is fetching in cats?

The study unfortunately was not set up in a way to assess how common fetching is in cats. While there aren’t any studies that have tried to figure out how prevalent fetching is among cats, cat behavioralist consider fetching in cats a rare but not unheard of trait.

Most cats that fetch are self-taught

Since the respondents the survey were recruited through announcements on social media, those pet owners with fetching cats likely naturally self selected to participate. This lead to a high percentage of cat owners reported that their cats can fetch (853/ 1154 cats – 74%) than is prevalent in the general domestic cat population. Slightly more male than female cats (617 to 537) played fetch. The average age at which the cats started to play fetch was 7 months.

While cats can be trained to fetch, the survey found that 94.4% of these fetching cats were not trained for this behavior, while only 5.6% were. A minority of the cats that played fetch also shared a home with a fetching dog (109 cats). This suggests that cats that play fetch are not learning this behavior from other pets or humans in the household.

The discovery that their cats like to fetch was serendipitous for many owners. The researchers noted two examples of this discovery:

“In opening a newspaper, the rubber band slipped off and flew down the hallway. Waldo chased it down and brought it back, dropping it at my feet. I ‘shot’ it again, and again he fetched it.”

“When I was making dinner one evening while she was still a kitten, I dropped some macaroni; she scrambled for a piece and brought it back to me. I [praised] her enthusiastically and a night or two later dropped one to see if she’d do the same. It quickly became her favorite game.”

What cat breeds like to play fetch?

Certain breeds, like Siamese or Burmese cats, are known for their more dog-like behaviors, including playing fetch. These breeds often display higher levels of social interaction and playfulness, making them more likely to engage in such activities. However, breed alone does not dictate a cat’s inclination to play fetch; individual personality plays a significant role.

How to train cats to fetch

Training a cat to fetch involves a combination of understanding cat behavior and positive reinforcement. Cats are more likely to respond to training that aligns with their natural instincts, such as chasing and pouncing.

A black cat sitting on a rug with a crinkly toy in front of her.
With the right training, you can teach your cat to play fetch. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

The process to train your cat to fetch typically involves:

  1. Choosing the Right Toy: Cats are more likely to fetch items that they find intriguing. Lightweight toys that can be easily carried in their mouth, such as small balls or stuffed mice, work well.
  2. Encouraging the Chase: Initially, the focus should be on getting the cat to chase the toy. Once they catch it, praise them enthusiastically.
  3. Introducing the Return Component: After the cat catches the toy, encourage them to bring it back. This can be done by calling them back or enticing them with treats. Patience is key, as this step may take time.
  4. Reinforcing the Behavior: Use treats or verbal praise to reinforce the behavior every time the cat brings the toy back. Consistency is crucial for the cat to understand and repeat the behavior.


Forman, J., Renner, E., & Leavens, D. (2023). Fetching Felines: A Survey of Cat Owners on the Diversity of Cat (Felis catus) Fetching Behaviour.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.