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Animal Behavior Center: Cat Behavior
Play Aggression

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Play aggression is the most common form of aggression displayed by cats toward people. All kittens and young cats must play. Play is a normal behavior that provides the young animal with opportunities to develop motor and cognitive skills, as well as the chance to socialize with others. All play consists of “mock” aggression—the cat stalks, chases, pounces, swats, kicks, scratches, and bites. Cats display two different types of play: solitary play and social play. Solitary play is directed toward objects, such as toys, skeins of yarn, paper bags, boxes, and rolled-up paper. Social play is directed toward others. Problems arise when play is directed toward people. Despite the playful intentions of the cat, people can be injured, sometimes seriously, because cat scratches and bites are painful and easily become infected.

Sometimes it is difficult to even determine if the cat is playing or if the cat is truly behaving aggressively. Two behaviors that cats show when they are playing are the “play face” (the cat’s mouth is held half open) and the sideways pounce or hop, often with an arched back. Cats tend to be quiet during play, whereas they are likely to growl, hiss, and spit during aggressive encounters. Chances are if your cat is under one year of age and is the only pet (or if no other pets will play with the cat), your cat is displaying play aggression toward you.

- Provide your cat with a selection of toys so you can determine her preferences. In general, cats enjoy batting small toys—think balls and fake mice. They also like to stalk, chase, and pounce on toys that move like prey, such as kitty teasers and cat dancers.
- Regularly provide novel objects for your cat to investigate, such as paper bags, boxes, etc.
- Spend at least 10 minutes (or longer if your cat wants) twice a day playing with your cat, using a cat dancer or throwing your cat’s favorite toys. Schedule these play sessions to coincide with times when your cat is naturally most active and playful.
- If your cat likes to sit under things and ambush your ankles as you walk by, or grab you as you go up and down the stairs, carry toys with you and toss them ahead of you to encourage your cat to chase the toys—rather than attack you.
- Consider getting another cat as a playmate. Make sure the new cat is as playful as your current cat.
- Consider building an outdoor enclosure for your cat, complete with branches, boxes, shelves and perches for your cat to navigate. This more complex environment with opportunities to hunt insects and chase leaves will redirect your cat’s energy.

- Do not encourage your cat to play with your hands, feet, or any other body part. While this may be cute when you have a tiny kitten, it will become painful and dangerous as the kitten grows into an adult cat.
- Do not buy toys that teach your cat to play with your hands, such as gloves with balls hanging from the fingers. The cat will not be able to discriminate when you are “wearing” the toy and when you are not.
- Avoid putting your cat in “time out” for playing too roughly. This can frustrate the cat and, as a result, make her even more wild and crazy the next time she tries to play with you.
- Under no circumstances should you run from your cat, hit the cat, or try to block her with your foot, as these maneuvers can incite your pet to intensify her play—or to switch from play to aggression.
- Do not punish your cat for playing too roughly. Punishing a playful cat can backfire. If you hit or slap at the cat, she may perceive this as play and become even rougher. Alternatively, she might become fearful of your hands and keep her distance from you at all times—or she might switch from play to real aggression

If, despite your best efforts, your cat persists in playing with you, you can discourage her by spraying from a can of compressed air. Try to carry the can around during the times the cat is likely to ambush you, so you will be able to deliver the blast of air at the exact moment the cat runs at you. Other devices such as whistles and water spray can stop the cat at the time, but are unlikely to teach the cat not to ambush you in the future. Loud noises, such as the blast from a small air horn, can work, too—but we do not recommend such powerful punishment. Some cats would be so terrified they might never come out of hiding!

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