Cats Playtime – when to intervene

When you live with a cat or two, or more, there are times when they will be interacting with each other and you get such a fright as it sounds and looks like they are really tucking into each other, and not in a friendly way.  They will throw each other onto the floor, often times making a loud “klonk” as their heads hit the tiles.  You race up to them to stop them in their tracks. 

They just look at you with a startled look, then fifteen minutes later they are at it again.  So how do you know when this is serious, or just good fun?  I’m here to reassure you, a lot of it is normal, there is no need to worry.  But, I’m also here to point out the things that you need to take seriously, and when you should intervene during play time, and more. 

Hunting vs Play

When kittens are learning they will practice all sorts of things with their siblings.  One very obvious learning activity is hunting.  They will stalk, pounce and chase anything and everything they can. I had a friend ask me the other day, “why does my kitten do this?”.  Her specific situation was this.  When she washes her hair in the mornings over the bath, her kitten will attack her feet. She bites, she is just all over her feet.  Why is this? It is simple really, the kitten is just trying to develop her hunting skills.  She does this by practicing on anyone or anything that is in her way at the time.  In a perfect world this would be with her litter mates.  But, because so many kittens are rehomed, some earlier than others, they have no choice but to show these behaviours on us, the humans.  They cannot tell us “Mom, I’m about to practice my skills on you, let me know what you think!”.  So instead, we assume that they are being naughty and try to discipline them in what I think is not always appropriate, and it could lead to more serious behaviours later on.  The best way to handle this sort of situation is to just make a “hiss” sound when she bites too hard, or scratches too sharply.  This will tell her, in a way that she would understand that it hurts. If you find that she bites hands and feet too often during playtime, you need to deter her with another toy, or “hiss” at her and put her somewhere else.  Kittens especially are easily distracted, so this helps as long as you are persistent.

Another way to help deter this behaviour is to have more toys rotated around the house.  What I mean by rotated is don’t have the same toys around all the time. Remove some, then put them back a week or so later.  This will keep your kitty interested in the toys around the home.  The best toys are those that will tickle his curiosity, we all know the saying, Curiosity killed the cat.  In this case, curiosity cured the cat.  You need to have toys that will boost your kitties hunting skills - anything where food is involved.  In other words, have a toy where you put food inside, and your cat has to work for the food. When he gets the food out it is the same reward or activity that results in him feeding on the food he has “hunted”. This promotes positive reinforcement and will definitely keep your cat preoccupied rather than biting and hunting you.

Play fighting vs real fighting

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there are times where cats play is far too rough and you feel the need to intervene. When your cats are play fighting, they are basically teaching each other how to handle a more serious situation. They will swipe, bite, wrestle each other to the ground.  But sometimes, you notice the body language changes.  You hear the howls and growls and if you know your cats, you will know that this is serious. Play fighting will be accompanied with relaxed postures, maybe the odd puffed up tail, but their ears are generally pointed forward, their facial expressions say that this is fun.  But when it is a real fight, the growling will be more noticeable, and their body language will display aggression.  Ears back, whiskers flat on their faces, dilated pupils, even the odd huff and puff.  So when do you know when to get involved.  In my home, Travis and Sancho have a love / hate relationship.  They will be playing with each other, then all of a sudden I will hear Travis cry out and run through the house with Sancho chasing him.  They get to the lounge and Travis tries to hide, Sancho is taunting him, and huffing and puffing, eventually he gets to Travis and wrestles him to the ground biting him quite painfully it seems. This is where I get involved.  I make the hiss sound, I go up to them stomping loudly, so that they disperse from the scene.

The trick with fighting, serious ones at that is to know when to get involved.  At the end of the day they need to sort out their battles.  If you keep getting involved this could create negative behaviour later on.  Cats do not have the same thought process as humans, for example, someone is going to end in tears.  They have a winner or loser, the loser will always get hassled, the winner will be the dominating cat.  You cannot interfere with this natural process.  Instead, get to know which fights could become quite serious, and could result in injury.  Only then get involved.  If they are huffing and puffing, even if they seem to be biting, leave them.  The one who is being taunted, like in my case it is always Travis, will eventually be able to disappear and the dominating cat, Sancho, will walk away feeling quite accomplished with himself.  Leave it be!  Later on, you can cuddle with the “loser”, and things will be right with world, your home.  But never interfere when they are building their hierarchy. 


In conclusion, and I do want to end at that, is this… get to know your cats, get to know their body language, get to know who is the dominating cat in your house.  This way, you will be able to determine when serious fights could be become more serious.  As I sit here, my three cats have a pretty good understanding of who is the dominating cat.  Travis gets put in his place often by him, and Scotch will never go up to him and play with him, he will only play with him when he starts the playtime.  In other words, Sancho, being the dominating cat in my household will not allow playtime until he has said it is okay.  I have spent so much time trying to understand this, and why it happens, but I just love that Sancho puts the kitten in his place, and Travis knows where he stands, he is a real boss man!  But in my world, they are all my babies, they are all precious, and they will listen to me.  Whether Sancho likes it or not!  You can build a serene home, but do get to know their behaviours, it goes a long way!

With love,

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