A Cat Clinic

Fighting or Playing? How can you tell?

Posted on: August 12th, 2013 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein

The following post was originally written by fellow cat veterinarian Dr. Colleen Currigan of Cat Hospital of Chicago.  How about in your household? Are your cats fighting or playing?

Aug 8, 2013 by Dr Colleen Currigan, Cat Hospital of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Even when it is not necessarily perceived as problematic, it is quite common to hear cat owners casually comment that ‘my cats fight all the time.’ But are they really ‘fighting’ or are they simply ‘just playing’?

Cats, particularly littermates, frequently indulge in specific behaviors that if one did not know otherwise might be inaccurately called a cat fight, when in reality it is not at all. These are actually play sessions.

Few people would confuse the middle-of-the-night growling and screaming of two cats outdoors as being involved in a major cat fight. As well, most of us can appreciate the enjoyment of watching two tiny kittens stalking each other on either side of a curtain or darting out from under a bed just as though they were hunting prey in the wild. Or they may rush toward one another in ‘attack-like mode’. One of the kittens will pounce, and then the two of them become a rolling ball of fur. But what about everything in between kitten play and a major cat fight?

Cats will often have play sessions with another cat all of their lives, not just when they are kittens, as long they have another cat to play with. As a general rule, play sessions occur between cats that belong to the same social group. Two cats are considered to be in the same social group if there is mutual grooming, touching of noses, rubbing against one another, cuddling close together, playing, or any combination of these behaviors. Littermates tend to have the strongest bonds, often exhibiting all of these ‘same social group’ behaviors, and with very regular frequency. In some cats, two cats may be in the same social group, but not all of these behaviors are seen, and those are seen may occur less frequently. In this case, the bond, even in the eyes of the owner, is less intense, but the cats are still considered by their owners to be ‘friends’ or ‘close’ and will still play.

Unfortunately, playing can sometimes escalate beyond simple ‘play’. When this happens, hissing may be heard. An occasional hiss in the middle of a play session is not of concern as this may be indicative of a misread play cue. However, if the hissing is more than just occasional, if the playtime repeatedly turns into aggression, if there is growling, if it’s the same cat doing the hissing all the time, or the same cat being the ‘aggressor’ instigating play that consistently escalates beyond play each time, then this may be a sign that the ‘play’ has escalated beyond ‘play’ and entered into the realm of aggression. In these situations, cat owners, if observant, may notice other body language clues as well, such as flattened ears, claws extended, piloerection (back of the spine elevated with fur ‘fluffed up’), firm, swift tail swatting (‘mad cat tail’), or confrontational stares (as if the cats are having a ‘stare off’). These signs are consistent with fight aggression in cats, not play aggression. In a nutshell, if these cues are not observed, if the interaction is relatively quiet (little to no growling or hissing), and if the cats seem to take turns as to who is the aggressor, then it is likely ‘play’. Play is fun, it is good exercise, it allows cats to be cats, and it should not be discouraged! If they’re ‘just playing’, let them do their thing!

If cats that normally play fight have a more ‘aggressive episode’, owners should never directly intervene – this may escalate the cat’s anxiety and lead to increased aggression between the two cats or even towards the owner. Try instead to redirect the negative behavior by distracting the cats (food, treats, favorite toys, even ‘baby talking’ does the trick with my own cats for mild ‘getting a bit beyond playing’ episodes). For severe, true fighting, clapping of the hands may be effective in breaking up the two cats but again, never should a human attempt to intervene as that can be very dangerous.

Although more detailed information about integrating cats into a household is beyond the scope of this blog article, it is worth mentioning the importance of slow integration of new cats into a home where another cat or cats resides. How slow is ‘slow’ depends on the chemistry between the cats involved, and may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks or more. In general, some sort of ‘cat hierarchy’ needs to be established between the cats, and when introductions are done slowly (to prevent true fights), in general the parties are able to work out their differences on their own without human intervention. Cats that are more slowly integrated with one another may have a better chance of being in the same social group and enjoying the company of the others in the group, including ‘play sessions’ with them.