Are My Cats Playing or Fighting?

Are my cats fighting or playing feature

Are you mystified trying to figure out if your cats are playing or fighting during wrestling matches? A cat’s behaviour can be hard to interpret, particularly when there is a mix of ages, breeds, temperaments, and unrelated individuals in one household.

This article will help you distinguish between a play date versus a cat fight and encourage harmonious living in multi-cat households.

Social Affiliation of Cats

There is a substantial body of evidence that, although domestic cats are solitary animals and capable of living alone, they also form social bonds. Whether in high-density colonies or in groups of related individuals, cats maintain coherence by creating a group odour via allogrooming/allorubbing.

Moreover, affiliated cats are less likely to exhibit overt aggression including fighting as long as there are sufficient environmental resources.

Likewise, cats socialised together during the sensitive period may probably develop affiliative relationships with each other, which will be maintained into adulthood. Such cats, therefore, form a more harmonious multi-feline household.

It is imperative to note that social relationships can shift throughout life.

How To Tell If Your Cats Are Playing Or Fighting

Cats playing or fighting

Most cats in social groups will engage in play-fighting. It can be difficult to know the difference between social play and an aggressive altercation.

Play is important for all cats; young and old, it has a positive impact on the cat’s emotional state, provides stimulation from boredom, helps develop and maintain social bonds. Unlike dogs, who use play as a form of social interaction, kittens along with adult cats’ motivations for play is centred around predatory behaviour.

Siblings commonly indulge in play sessions; stalking, chasing, as well as pouncing that may seem like fights. Some play sessions can lead to an individual cat becoming over-stimulated besides boisterous which can be stressful for a cat that is not as excitable, so keep a close eye and diffuse tension to avoid escalation of arousal when one displays signs of aggression.

Cats are prone to indulge in social play in the right type of environment: full of obstacles, hiding holes, cat trees, activity centres, and boxes with entry/exit holes to name a few.

Cats communicate through body language and to a lesser extent through vocalisation. The overall social relationship should be considered when determining play vs fight since behaviour can also be individual.

Signs Your Cats Are Playing

Kittens playing

Cats start playing at an early age. While it also helps to form social bonds, most kittenhood play is intended to hone a young carnivore into a keener, stronger predator.

 Kittens are very social along with a high play drive from early age. They are taught skills such as grooming, feeding along with hunting from the queen and rely on littermates’ collaborations to learn social skills including agonistic and affiliative behaviours.

Inter-cat social play peaks around 8-10 weeks of age, then object play becomes prevalent. Toys present an outlet for natural predatory sequences as part of play, which prevents play biting.

Cats can be totally playful into old age; however inter-cat interactions and social play may decline with maturity.

The following are indicators that your cats are playing:

  • Cats who mock fight will often be calm as well as happy
  • Ears in normal or forward position (not pinned back)
  • Body stance forward towards one another
  • Hair will be flat (no piloerection)
  • May exhibit play bite only
  • Wrestle and chase each other
  • Jovial cats will not claw at each other, will not hiss, swat, or growl
  • Mischievous cats will take turns to be on top of one another with equal time spent rolling onto their sides or backs.
  • There will be sense of balance in which both cats engage in chase and roughhousing.

 In certain social groups, male cats can often engage in extra play fights in comparison to females who may seem less interested in rowdiness after social maturity (around 3 years old).

Signs Your Cats Are Fighting

Cats fighting in the snow

In contrast to cats engaging in play, cats who are fighting exhibit tense body language, growl, hiss, and may claw their opponent.

As a resourceful species, cats generally avoid physical disputes. Overt fighting can cause injury, incapacity of hunting, and even death.

Active aggression (fighting) will occur if the cat feels threatened, avoidance prospects and escape are limited or absent.

Certain cats resort to fighting for a variety of reasons.

Most cats will defend their territory (within the home or beyond) against invaders. Some cats turn to active aggression faster than others, dependent on individual genetics, sex, and early experiences.

The following are signs that your cats are fighting: 

  • Eyes wide open, pupils dilated with confrontational stares
  • Ears up and flattened back against the cat’s head
  • Whiskers forward and spread out
  • Mouth may be open with teeth bared, one cat might bite another
  • Vocalisation through growling or hissing is common
  • Piloerection of tail and body (puffed up looking twice the size)
  • Tense sideway body posture rather than face one another
  • Claws retracted out, swatting, or striking with paws is prevalent during fights
  • Tail vertical with tip down or raised, may be lashing or twitching

Cats cannot diffuse an aggressive situation due to limited social communication skills, so owners need to take proactive actions to resolve it. It can take a couple of hours once aggression intensifies for a cat to calm down. Once separated, it’s best to leave cats alone in a quiet room until fully relaxed.

Reasons Cat Fight

Reasons cats fight

Why do some cats fight more than others? A long list of factors contribute to aggressiveness, including stress, poor socialization, and territorial conflict.

A lack of early-life socialization can contribute to aggressiveness.

The socialisation period (2 – 9 weeks) is crucial for kittens. Hand-raised kittens that have not been socialised with other cats during the critical period are anecdotally at risk of developing problem behaviours such as nervousness, aggression, and reduced coping mechanism during environmental changes.

Cats will often fight with new household members.

In a study conducted in 2017 of 2492 owners of multiple cats, 73.3% noted squabble signs from the initial introduction phase of another cat. An addition of a new cat to the home correlated with frequency of dispute and the more cats in one household, added recurrent tension signs.

When food is scarce or resources are threatened, food aggression is common.

Food aggression can cause strife when cats from different social groups are fed in proximity and when food is scarce. Competition for resources or human attention can also cause inter-cat friction.

Territorial disputes are common among outdoor cats.

We often hear free-roaming felines fight due to territorial disagreement particularly night-time. Cats place significant reliance on securing their territory than on connections to people or other cats. Many problematic cat behaviours come from perceived threats to this security, often due to disputes with other felines.

Some cats become aggressive due to illness.

Inter-cat conflict due to illness commonly presents as sudden attacks without previous disagreement between involved cats, please have your cat checked by a vet if this occurs at your home.

Cats may fight to protect their kittens.

Households with breeding females may also encounter episodes of aggression, especially when queens are safeguarding their kittens.

Your cat’s genes can also make them more aggressive.

Problematic cat behaviour is also affected by several genes: one of them is the oxytocin receptor, which has been identified as contributing to irritability signifying that genetic testing may become an important tool in the veterinary behaviourist field.

What To Do If Your Cats Are Fighting?

What to do if your cats are fighting

Breaking up a cat fight can be difficult. Instead of using your hands to intervene, try to break up the fight in gentle, safe ways that distract your cats while not putting you in harm’s way.

Inter-cat clashing along with fighting can cause a lot of stress to the resident cat(s) and owner. It is important not to intervene in the physical sense.

It is vital you do NOT place your hand or any body parts between fighting cats since it can cause major injury requiring urgent medical attention (cat bite wounds tend to be deep, harbour bacteria and other pathogens in their mouths).

The use of noise deterrents in addition to water guns is common however may be startling, scary and have a negative effect on an anxious cat. Never punish or touch a cat during these times as it may cause the cat to become fearful of people which may unintentionally reward the aggressive conduct.

Throw a towel or small blanket on both cats to break up the fight. The goal is to distract, redivert the cats’ attention, and let them both cool off.

Barrier separation such as baby gates, cardboard, wood, or plastic boards can also be useful to block view of each cat.

Encourage contact through positive reinforcement and for territorial aggression; separation, confinement including gradual reintroductions.

Should I let my cats play fight?

Play fighting is a normal healthy behaviour in which cats will chase each other, roll around and strike each other with their paws. Play fighting is silent, the biting is gentle, causes no injury or pain and the claws are typically retracted. Play fighting should be disrupted if it accelerates into hostility.

How To Reduce Stress And Minimise Fights?

Environmental enrichment and multiple resources scattered around the house such as litter boxes, beds, scratching posts, bowls, hide, and perch boxes will help to reduce stress, increasing your cats’ ability to cope with disruptions.

Read More: Top 10 Best Cat Trees

Toys, puzzle feeders, foraging opportunities, and supervised outside time should be provided to all cats even if they have outdoor access, although extra enrichment should be offered to indoor cats.

Interactive personal play with each cat should be tailored to suit the individual cat. Play mimics predatory behaviour and helps to minimise play aggression.

Feliway may help in reduction of inter-cat tension and habituation to a new home in combination with other anxiolytic products.

Neutering or spaying your cats will help address certain aggressive behaviours, particularly in intact males.

Conclusion

Reinforcement of friendly playful interactions and reduction of aggressive behaviour is reliant on correct integration of a new cat and awareness of cat groups’ social dynamics in multi-cat homes.

If you are still unsure if your cats are playing or fighting, record their interaction and post your comments below.

Bibliography

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Bradshaw, J. (2018). Normal feliNe behaviour and why problem behaviours develop. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 20, 411-421. Retrieved September 23, 2020

Care, I. C. (2018, September 26). Aggression between cats. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from International Cat Care: https://icatcare.org/advice/aggression-between-cats/

Halls, V. (2013, August). The feline fun factor – does play matter? UK. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from http://www.vickyhalls.net/free-guides

Heath, I. R. (2016). Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare. St Louis, MO: Elsevier. Retrieved September 26, 2020

Minori Arahori, *. Y.-M. (2015). The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphism in cats (Felis catus) is associated with “Roughness” assessed by owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 1-4. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.039

Ramos, D. (2019). Common Feline Problem Behaviours Aggression in multi-cat households. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 21, 221-233. Retrieved September 24, 2020

Sharon L. Crowell-Davis*, T. M. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6, 19-28. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.elsevier.com/locate/jfms

States, T. H. (2019). Guide to Cat Behaviour Counselling. Washington, DC, USA: The Humane Society Of The United States. Retrieved September 28, 2020

Melina Grin

About Melina Grin

Melina’s love of animals began in childhood, when she would care for sick or stray dogs and cats while dreaming of becoming a Vet. While working in the Veterinary field she found a distinct interest and passion in Small Animal Rehabilitation and Feline Behaviour. Melina is the proud director of Pet Nurture in Sydney, Australia (Unique Mobile Animal Wellness Centre specialising in Cats). Melina is currently studying to become a qualified Veterinary Nurse with a view to progressing to Animal Behaviour Therapy

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