Are My Cats Playing Or Fighting?

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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 centered around predatory behaviour.

How Do Cats play With Each Other

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 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

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

Ashley L Elzerman, T. L.-F. (2019). Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 22(8), 705-717. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X19877988

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

View Sources

Ashley L Elzerman, T. L.-F. (2019). Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 22(8), 705-717. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X19877988

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

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

7 thoughts on “Are My Cats Playing Or Fighting?

  1. chum

    Thanks for all this info, Melina! It’s been a lot of work with my recent adoption. I think he didn’t have much socialization as a kitten, so he didn’t understand how to play and recognize other cats boundaries. He’s becoming better at it though, so I’m proud of him 🙂

    Reply
  2. Brianna

    How do you handle when one cat is treating it as play and the other is treating it like a fight?

    I have two cats. I have had my 5 year old female for 4 years, and my almost 2 year old female that I’ve had for 3 months, both are former strays. My younger cat is having fun and treats everything as a game, but my older cat (while she’s getting better) will sometimes get very stressed out by the whole thing and reacts to play bites, batting, and tackles with pinned ears, growling, hissing etc.

    I have lots of hides and multiple cat trees/high places for the cats to hang out, but I just don’t really know what to do when an incident occurs. I usually can break it up pretty easily. The younger can just sort of be picked up and moved. But is this the right way to handle it?

    My older cat is the more well socialized of the two. She lived with a colony of ferals that was captured for TNR, but she was malnourished and deemed unable to care for herself and was friendly enough that they put her up for adoption. She lived with another cat before when I had a roommate and generally found him (the other cat) quite annoying, but she at least would initiate play with him. Something I have yet to see her do with my new-ish cat.

    My younger cat lived in an Arby’s dumpster by herself for approximately a year until she became so heavily pregnant that it slowed her down enough to allow an Arby’s employee to catch her (according to her foster she was the best momma cat they’ve ever had). Younger cat is also some sort of Persian mix with a flat face that leads to her snorting like a pig after any sort of exertion (yes I’ve spoken to my vet about it) and the least athleticism of any cat I’ve ever met (she can’t reach any of the high places my older cat loves to hang out on like the bookshelf, and she’s even shaky reaching the top of the cat tree though she loves the ground hides I’ve got scattered through the apartment).

    Reply
    1. Melina Grin Post author

      Hi Brianna,

      Well done on the environmental set up, you can add more resources to minimize competition with tunnels and boxes.

      If you need to break up a fight, throw a towel or small blanket on both cats to break it up.

      I would also increase play therapy with your almost 2 year old female and re-divert her attention with toys when your 5 year old female doesn’t wish to interact.

      When inter-cat conflict occurs, re-introductions through positive reinforcement are recommended. You can read more about how to help cats get along here https://allaboutcats.com/how-to-help-cats-get-along

      Hope this helps

      Reply
  3. Ashleigh

    Hi, thanks for the info! My kittens have play fought since the day I got them, however they do often exhibit some actual ‘fighting’ signs like the ears being backwards and one of them often does the sideways walk while playing. Over the past couple of days since I’ve been back home after a couple of weeks away (housemate looked after cats so they didn’t have to leave their usual environment) one of the cats (both males) has taken to making the little trilling noise when he bites my other cat, and seems intent on not giving up. It still doesn’t seem serious but I’m worried as it’s a change I haven’t seen before that there has been a change in their dynamic!

    Reply
    1. Mallory Crusta

      Fascinating question, Ashleigh! If the cat isn’t showing any other indicators of aggression or hostility, I wouldn’t view this behavior as a cause for concern.

      Reply
  4. Luke Beck-Brady

    Thanks so much for this information! We recently introduced our 7 year old cat to an adopted 4 year old cat. Both have been socialized with other cats. My 7 year old cat has groomed our new cat, but this seems to result in a fight afterwards. My 4 year old cat makes noises and flicks his tail which tells me he is bothered by the grooming, which then starts the fight. The fight is easy to break up and the cats are typically sleeping or doing other activities soon thereafter in the same area. This is the same for times when they fight which is not initiated by grooming. Is the grooming before the fighting a sign that this may be play? Should we allow the fights to happen or break it up?

    Reply
    1. Kate Barrington

      Hey Luke, it’s hard to tell what cats are thinking and, as you’ve noticed, their moods can change quickly. The tail flicking and noises can certainly be signs of fighting. You probably won’t be able to break up every fight, but it might not be a bad idea if things get intense.
      Something you could try is using a little positive reinforcement to encourage non-aggressive interaction. For example, when the old cat is grooming the new cat, give them both a few treats. If they’re relaxing next to each other, another treat. You can also try playing with both of them at the same time and again, give some treats. Things like this will help them form a positive association with time spent with each other.
      Good luck!

      Reply

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