Yes, cats can play dead. As long as you have a good relationship with your cat, and they are willing to learn there is no reason that they cannot learn tricks like dogs.
One of these tricks is playing dead. If you train your cat well then you can teach it to collapse when given a specific command.
Do cats play dead in life-threatening situations?
There are many reports of cats, particularly kittens, being assumed dead and then reviving later. This could be where the nine lives myth originated from.
Firefighters have found cats in buildings that appear dead but revive once being treated with oxygen masks. This is used as a therapeutic intervention for smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Some cats that are abandoned in the snow appear dead from hypothermia. Some have even had cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) performed on them by qualified vets and then been declared dead.
Once left under a heat source, such as a heat lamp, for 5-10 minutes it is rare, but not inconceivable, for these cats to reanimate and be fine.
Some cats have been hit by cars and are buried as they are assumed to be dead. These have been known to revive and claw themselves out of the ground.
Cats have a bizarre ability to survive in any scenario. They are hardy and resilient beings and this is where the nine lives concept comes from. With gentle care and compassion, cats can survive most things.
What does it mean when your cat plays dead?
If your cat is playing dead this could be due to a multitude of reasons.
If they go limp and relax once you pick them up this is not necessarily a reason to worry. Kittens instinctively go limp when their mother picks them up and this could be a behaviour they have continued into adulthood.
They may also just be very relaxed and comfortable around you. If they expose their stomach to you, this is a sign of submission and vulnerability and not something to worry about.
Cats may also play dead when they do not want to do something. There are some hilarious videos on the internet of cats playing dead when a walk is suggested. As soon as the collar and leash are put on, they collapse to the ground and refuse to stand.
This could be a survival instinct if they are unused to the collar, as this can evoke a reaction similar to being attacked by a predator.
Cats are very stubborn animals and if they do not want to do something they are unlikely to change their mind. If your cat is playing dead, it’s probably best just to accept that you’re not going on a walk today.
If your cat appears to play dead just for fun, it could be that simple! As humans enjoy playing, cats do too and will often look for entertaining ways to pass the time.
If your cat lies on the floor and exposes their stomach to you, this is an expression of trust. Cat’s stomachs are the most vulnerable area of their body and leaving this exposed shows they are submitting to you and trust you to protect them.
Sometimes cats may appear to be playing dead but are simply lying on their backs. This could just be a comfort thing, as many cats enjoy being in this position.
Alternatively, cats may expose their stomachs in hot weather to cool down. The heat will dissipate fastest from this area of their body and will allow them to cool off faster.
How to teach your cat to play dead
The first step is to call your cat over to you. We suggest holding or shaking some of their favorite treats to encourage them to approach you.
Put a treat on the ground for your cat to eat. Using a calm tone, say their name, and check they are relaxed and paying attention to you.
Put one hand on your cat’s back and hold your other hand in the shape of a gun. Point this at your cat and ‘shoot’.
You can choose what your vocal command is. We recommend either ‘bang bang’, ‘pew pew pew’, or ‘play dead’. It is important to consistently use the same vocal command so your cat becomes used to the sound and associates it with this action.
At the same time, gently press down with your hand on their back. They should stretch out and lie on the ground. Take great care not to press too hard, as this could injure your cat.
Take your hand off their back and reward them with a treat and verbal praise.
Repeat these steps multiple times a day for a week or so, until you do not need to press down on their back to make them lie down.
How to train your cat to walk on a leash without playing dead
It is important to not expect your cat to become acclimatized to the harness and leash immediately. It may take up to a month for them to get comfortable.
Try to purchase a high-quality H harness as opposed to a neck collar. Begin by putting this on your cat while they are indoors, but do not try to fasten it.
Allow your cat to adjust to the weight and feel of the harness. The reason you should not tighten it is so your cat can escape if they get stressed.
A good idea is to put the harness on while your cat is relaxed and playing. Reward your cat with treats for behaving and being calm.
Try to put the harness on your cat every day so they begin to acclimatize. Once it becomes more used to it, begin to tighten the harness gradually.
Once you have managed to fasten it completely, begin attaching the leash and allow your cat to drag it around.
Eventually, you will be able to walk it on a leash like a dog.