Play and Predatory Aggression in Cats

Why is my cat starting to play rough?

Play should be fun for all participants. Cats often use their claws or teeth when playing, yet most cats apply only gentle pressure. Some cats do not seem to know their strength and do not recognize that they are causing pain to their play partners. Kittens orphaned or taken from their mother and littermates too soon miss the important opportunity to learn about bite inhibition. In an ideal world, kittens would stay with their litter until they were close to three months old, but this is not practical.

Accidental bites and scratches can be painful and cause infection, so it is important to find ways to play safely. From the start, the best strategy is to teach your cat that all play must be directed toward a toy, not a person’s hand or foot. Never encourage your cat to chase your moving hand, and always have a toy ready when you prepare to play.

Wand toys, such as the Cat Dancer®, and toys that can be tossed, chased, or fetched, are ideal. When you play with a moving toy and notice your cat is staring at your hand instead of the toy, try to hold your hand very still; being still may be enough to help your cat lose interest and refocus on the toy. However, if your cat continues to stare at your stationary hand, particularly if your cat crouches or begins to flick his tail, release the toy by tossing it (do not aim for your cat!) to encourage him to pursue and pounce on the toy.

Some cats can play gently for short periods before they become aroused during the game. The first signs of arousal may be rapid tail movement or ears pinned back. You may notice dilated pupils (your cat’s eyes may suddenly appear dark). Try to anticipate your cat’s tolerance and toss the toy away from your body while using a cue such as ‘go play’ to signal that you would now like him to play on his own.

Are there safe games I can play with my cat?

If your cat is easily aroused during interactive play, you may provide excellent social enrichment by training him in some fun skills or tricks. Use tasty treats to train cues such as ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘fetch’, or ‘high five’. With training, you may be able to use a verbal cue to redirect your cat if he becomes overly aroused during play.

Try a variety of interactive toys to find some games that are not overly stimulating to your cat. Examples include wand toys and items that can be tossed or rolled, such as ping pong balls for your cat to chase.

What play outlets can I offer my cat?

Though social interactions are important, providing your cat with plenty of opportunities for self-play will also help satisfy his play needs. You may find your cat enjoys toys that move on their own, such as battery-operated and spring-mounted toys. Many cats engage with toys that release food when manipulated. You can hide food-filled toys around the house for him to ‘hunt’.

To try to maintain your cat’s interest in toys, consider a daily rotation of toys so that your cat is presented with a few new or different items daily. Pick up all the toys and place them in a box or basket out of reach. Every day, put a few different toys out for him to play with.  

Try a variety of toys with a variety of textures, sizes, and shapes. Make sure the toys are safe and cannot be accidentally swallowed. Yarn, strings, and ropes are dangerous as they are easily ingested by cats, causing a serious intestinal blockage.

See the handouts “Kitten Behavior and Training – Play and Investigative Behaviors” and “Cat Behavior and Training – Play and Play Toys” for more information.

What should I do if my cat exhibits play-related aggression?

If your cat appears calm but does not understand that he is hurting you, you may be able to say “ouch” and quietly walk away from him, ending the game. Over time your cat may learn that his rough play causes play to end.

If your cat is already very aroused, walking away may be unsafe. Also, once your cat is aroused, he may ignore your subtle message. If you notice signs that your cat is becoming aroused and is about to bite or scratch you, try a distraction such as the toy toss described previously. You may also make a novel noise that interests your cat. When they are in a calm mood, cats can easily be trained to ‘go fetch’ or ‘go to your perch’ for a treat. Once you have trained your cat, you can end a game using one of these cues.

"Over time your cat may learn that his rough play causes play to end."

Physical punishment should never be used to interrupt play. Punishment causes fear, which can trigger an immediate increase in aggression. Even one scary event can be enough to damage your cat’s trust in you. See the handout “Why Punishment Should be Avoided” for more information.

Can I train my cat not to stalk and leap toward me?

Cats routinely practice their predatory skills during play. They pounce on artificial mice and laser dots. Some cats appear to entertain themselves by ambushing people as they walk by.

Often, this behavior occurs at certain times of the day or in certain locations. If so, you may be able to predict and prevent the ambush. If your cat pounces at particular times of the day, provide him with an activity—perhaps arrange a kitty hunt or offer a box to explore at that time.

Keep a ping pong ball or small toy in your pocket, and if you hear your cat creeping up behind you or as you prepare to walk through a high-risk area, toss the small toy ahead of you. This will keep you safe and teach him to focus on moving toys rather than on moving people. Another option is to train your cat to move ahead of you to a destination, so as you hear your cat approaching, you can use a cue such as ‘go to your perch’. When your cat responds, deliver a treat. Once the pounce is interrupted, most cats will move and engage in the new, safer game.

"Cats routinely practice their predatory skills during play."

It is helpful if you can hear your cat coming—try putting a bell on your cat’s collar or harness during high-risk times. Remove the collar when you leave the house, so your cat does not get his collar snagged—serious injuries can occur when collars catch on objects.

Should I get another cat to keep my cat busy?

Cats with a strong desire for social play may direct their ‘rough’ play toward another cat, provided that the other cat will tolerate this play style. However, not all cats are comfortable living with other cats, particularly if they have not been well-socialized or their personalities clash. It is best to consult a behavior professional before considering adding a second cat to your home.

See the handouts “Cat Behavior Problems – Aggression Towards Other Household Cats” and “Considerations When Getting a Second Cat” for more information