Bam! Pow! Hiss! MEOW! When you see your two cats on the floor chasing each other and batting with their paws, it can be easy to confuse the good-natured playing, or roughhousing, with actual fighting.
Several feline behaviorists weigh in on the signals that can help you tell the difference and provide tips on when and how to break it up.
First off, cats play rougher than we might think.
“They play rougher than we would allow our children to play,” says Beth Adelman, MS, a certified cat behavior consultant in Brooklyn, New York. But play is a crucial part of any cat’s development.
Play is displayed starting when kittens are very young, and it’s how cats fine-tune the use of their teeth and claws and practice important life skills, such as hunting, explains Kat Miller, Ph.D, a certified applied animal behaviorist with the ASPCA in New Jersey.
“Usually, kittens teach each other early on that biting or scratching too hard in play ends the game,” Miller says.
Playing Vs. Fighting: What To Look For
The experts agree that the key to deciphering whether cats are playing or fighting is to observe their body language. Look for these signs that indicate play:
- Biting is minimal
- Claws tend to be retracted
- Nobody’s fur is puffed up
- No bottle-brush tail
- Ears should be mostly up
Also check for reciprocity.
“There can be chasing, but not relentless chasing,” Miller says. “Typically they take turns. But if one is always the chaser and the chase-ee, that’s not a good sign.”
Finally, listen for the sounds that accompany a cat’s body language. According to Adelman, play vocalization is meowing, not growling or hissing. One of the most common signals isn’t all that reliable, as it turns out. Tails will lash either way, Adelman says.
Managing Stressful Situations
If you just brought home a new cat, observe interactions between the cats closely.
This can be a stressful time for both your new and existing cats, and fighting may ensue. Jane Ehrlich, feline behaviorist and owner of Cattitude Feline Behavior in Phoenix, Arizona, recommends you begin by having the cats learn about each other through smell first, then seeing each other, followed by a watchful introduction.
“Introduce some interaction, supervised,” she says. “You watch their body language. When you’re doing the face-to-face in increments, you see how they interact with each other.”
“The more patient you are and let the cat interact with you and the other cat when they feel safe, the more they will interact,” Adelman adds.
Even if the goal is for the two cats to play with each other, you are still very much part of the equation.
“Once cats have been successfully introduced, mutual playtime with both of them can be a great way for them to learn to enjoy each other’s presence, and may even get them started playing with each other,” Miller says. “Use two toys simultaneously at first to prevent one cat from monopolizing the fun.”
And it’s not just the new cat who feels anxiety.
“When a newbie comes into a home, the smells are an immediate indication that an intruder is there,” says Colleen Wilson, DVM, resident with the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and practicing veterinarian in Osgoode, Ontario, Canada.
“The initial cat may start stressing about his resources (food, water, litter pan, etc.) and want to fend the ‘intruder’ off.” Miller agrees. “A cat who has been an ‘only child’ for most or all of its life will not have had much opportunity to develop the feline social skills necessary to successfully cohabitate with another feline,” she says. “This can lead to territorial, defensive, fearful or very rough behavior with the newcomer, making integration a rocky road indeed.”
Pay particular attention to situations in which you are introducing a young cat to a senior kitty.
“The playful antics of the youngster are often overwhelming for the less active cat, and this can lead to tension, defensive aggression or withdrawal by the elder,” says Miller.
Using cat toys can help when a kitten is being a kitten and an older cat is, well, having none of it.
“You need to redirect the younger cat with a toy to play with you,” Adelman says. “It’s redirecting the energy and giving them something appropriate to play with.”
Breaking Up The Fight
Finally, if you do have two cats who play too roughly, there are several things you can do to break it up. But first, here’s what not to do. “Cats should never be left to ‘fight it out,’” Miller says. “This can lead to serious damage to the cats and to their relationship.”
Instead, Miller considers a responsible pet owner a combination of parent and referee.
“They are there to supervise and help set the stage for successful, positive interactions but ready to jump in if things spin out of control,” she says. “Every parent knows that even gentle, appropriate play can quickly turn rough and aggressive, requiring intervention.”
But be careful how you intervene.
“Never put your hands in there or try to pick up one of the cats,” Adelman says. “You will get bit or scratched and it will hurt. Say ‘hey,’ clap or make another loud noise. See if you can chase one into a room and lock the door. Grab a towel or blanket and throw it over both of them. Typically that startles them enough to let go of each other. Grab one under the towel and relocate it and give everyone 20 minutes. No scolding, no drama.”
Wilson has an additional tactic.
“If the owner needs to stop an interaction with two cats, it is really helpful that they have a ‘come’ command already trained, so that if the cats know when the owner shakes the treat bag, and they come, they get a treat,” she says. “This would only work if the owner knows how to read their cats’ body language and interrupt the cats before an interaction escalates to an impossible breakup.”
Whether you have a grumpy cat and a new kitten, or two cats of similar age, your vigilance in reading — and paying attention to — their body language can mean the difference between a happy household and one filled with tension.
“Play is healthy, fun and educates them,” Ehrlich says. “It’s just a matter of if the other cat a victim or a willing partner.”
If these tips aren’t working for you, you may need to bring in a specialist. Consider the following resources:
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
- American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists
By: Elizabeth Anderson Lopez