Almost every pet supply store carries a catnip kicker toy, but Buddy cat kicker toys are unique in their category. Each toy is handmade in Seattle by Chris Sweeney who started making cat toys soon after adopting a kitten who wouldn’t play with any of the toys she brought home. Her kicker toys are made from cotton quilting fabrics featuring artful textile designs and vivid colors; accented with an enticing feather or crinkle tail, and friendly wool eyes. To learn more about this small Seattle-based business we talked to Chris Sweeney about her inspiration and what makes a good cat toy.
MB: How did you start making cat toys?
CS: It started with a leap of faith, a disappointed kitten, and a bead.
Years ago I quit my job and gave myself 6 months to try my hand at self-employment. Meanwhile, my kitten Milo expressed disinterest with every new cat toy I placed in front of him. I loved sewing and making skirts. One skirt became twenty and I soon began selling them at the Fremont Outdoor Sunday Market. That’s where I saw the bead. Some clever artisan had made bracelets out of wool beads and I wanted one. But, I shouldn’t be buying expensive jewelry, I reasoned, so I went to the yarn store instead and bought the wool and needles needed to make my own wool beads.
I managed to make one of the ugliest round beads I had ever seen. Discouraged, I threw it on the floor for Milo. He loved it! Like a one-man soccer team he’d quickly advance the ball through the house; with the powerful strike of his paw, he’d aim for the sofa or buffet, then race to the goalie position to reject the goal. Back and forth he ran while I laughed and cheered. I made a dozen more, this time with polka dots to resemble soccer balls, and brought them to my booth at the Fremont Sunday Market.
They were a hit. Not long after, a woman approached me who owned a pet supply store and asked if I sold them wholesale. She ordered 50 and two weeks later ordered 50 more. This gave me the courage to bring some with me the next time I went to Mud Bay to buy cat food.
While at the checkout I nervously set a few of the balls on the counter and asked if he thought Mud Bay would be interested in selling them. They said yes. Thanks to Milo I started a cat toy business.
He became my muse for the kicker toys that were to come later. I have made over 25,000 cat toys for Mud Bay, from my home in Seattle. That’s a lot of happy cats – and hopefully a lot of laughing and cheering.
Milo has since passed and I no longer make the wool cat toy balls, but I still have the original ball I made for him, the one that started it all.
MB: What do you think makes a good cat kicker toy?
CS: Adorable, durable, with lasting appeal.
There are a lot of cat kicker toys out there to choose from. I wanted the Little Buddy cat toys to be pretty. I love to quilt and shopping for quilting fabric is one of my favorite activities. I am happy for the opportunity to buy lots of beautiful fabrics, like the ones designed for Cotton & Steel, and incorporate them into my cat toys. Each Little Buddy is stuffed with catnip by hand and finished with a colorful feather tail. I want to make toys that look captivating and are adorable enough to give as a gift to a friend.
Durability is the most important quality in a kicker toy. My fabrics are reinforced to stand up to sharp claws and teeth. Some cats play gently with their Little Buddy, like Milo. He would sweetly groom the feather tail, give it a few loving kicks with the pads of his paws, and then rub his face on it before he fell asleep with it tucked under his arm. That’s how the name Little Buddy came to be. He treated it like a cherished friend, so I added eyes to make it look friendly. Some cats are not so tender with their toys. In the beginning, I gave Little Buddies to friends’ cats and watched the interaction. After much rough-and-tumble play, I was pleased to see the toys live to play another day. I’d wanted to create a toy that cats could return to again and again.
MB: We’ve been talking about the cat kicker toys with the feather, but you also have another version of the toy. Can you tell us why you have the second version?
CS: During one of my many trips to Mud Bay for cat food and treats I started talking to a sales associate about the Little Buddies. I told him that I made them and asked if he had any feedback he would like to offer. He said he loved the toy, especially some of my unique fabric choices, but he could not buy one for his cat because his cat would eat the feather. He suggested I make one with a different kind of tail. Shortly thereafter the Crinkle Buddy cat toy came into being. I use solid color Kona cotton fabrics for these, with playful felt eyes, and a durable Tyvek tail that’s cut into strips and crinkled by hand.
MB: How do you source your materials for each kicker toy?
CS: I like to buy from American businesses. I purchase most of my fabrics locally at Pacific Fabrics in Seattle and Keepsake Cottage Fabrics in Bothell. The catnip comes from an herb company in Northern California and the feathers from a company in the Midwest.
MB: Is there anything else you could tell us about why you think this specific kicker toy is beloved by cats?
CS: I make every toy by hand, and each one is made with love. In my little home factory, my own cats – Homer and Virgil – supervise all aspects of production. They love to sit on the ironing board and watch me cut and press fabric, and I placed a quilt for them next to my sewing machine where they nap while I work. They are leash trained and they take me for walks around the neighborhood to make sure I get plenty of coffee breaks during the workday.
Often when I finish a toy I think about the cat that will soon be playing with it. Hopefully, one toy at a time, I bring a little joy to people and the cats they love.***