Cats need to play. Play is vitally important to a cat’s mental and physical health, and it’s especially important for indoor cats. Even though cats may sleep up to 16 hours a day, when they’re awake, they need stimulation, and the best way to accomplish this is with play. In the wild, when lions, tigers and other wild cats aren’t sleeping, they’re either hunting, or teaching their young to hunt. And play is nothing more than channeling your domestic tiger’s hunting instinct into play.
This hunt/prey behavior starts as soon as kittens are old enough to stand on their legs. Kittens will “stalk” their litter mates and pounce on them. This is one of the reasons why young kittens should always be adopted with another kitten, or into a household with another kitten or young adult cat. Not only do kittens need a playmate, playing with another cat will also teach the kitten that biting and clawing hurts, which will naturally moderate rough play behavior.
Signs of play aggression
One of the most common signs of play aggression is “ankle grabbing.” You may be walking by your cat and all of a sudden, she grabs your ankle and either scratches or bites. Play aggression can also be directed at your hands, especially if you use them to play with your cat – something that may be cute when she’s a kitten, but not so cute when she’s turned into an adult cat.
There’s a difference between rough play and aggression
It can sometimes be difficult to determine the difference between rough play and aggression – there’s a very fine line between the two. Watch your cat’s body language for clues. Normal play behavior can include the sideways pounce or hop, often with the back arched. During fun play, ears and tails will be straight up in the air. There may be some hissing, but play is usually quiet. If you notice a cat’s ears turn toward the back of the head (“airplane ears”) or you hear growling, the play has tipped over into a aggression.
How to prevent and correct play aggression
Provide a variety of toys for your cat
Toys that stimulate your cat’s natural hunting instinct will be most effective for creating a fun play experience for your cat that also helps her burn off excess energy. Even though there are lots of cute little catnip filled toys on the market, simply placing one in front of your cat and hoping that she’ll play with it doesn’t work with most cats.
Play with your cat at regular times every day, at least twice a day for 10-15 minutes each. These play sessions will not only keep your cat happy, they’re also a wonderful way to strengthen the bond between cat and human.
Make time for one or two play sessions, 10-20 minutes in length, each day. You and your kitties will find that you’ll look forward to these session every day.
Get creative with playtime
Interactive, fishing pole type toys such as the Neko Flies or DaBird are the best way to get your cat playing with you, and to satisfy her hunt/prey instinct. Certified Cat Behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett provides wonderful advice on how to make all the right moves with interactive toys in her article on Interactive Play Therapy:
How you move the interactive toy is important. Don’t wave it around frantically just to give your cat an aerobic workout. That’s not how cats naturally hunt. Stick to what’s natural for your cat. In the wild, a cat would stalk her prey while staying as quiet and invisible as possible. She would inch closer and closer and then, when she gets within striking distance, she would pounce. Cats don’t have the lung capacity to chase to exhaustion so don’t conduct marathons throughout the house. Move the toy like prey, alternating between fast and slow motions so it gives your cat time to plan her next move. Here’s a tip: movements that go away from or across your cat’s visual field will trigger her prey drive. Don’t dangle the toy in her face or move it toward her.
Interactive puzzle toys can be a great way to keep your cats entertained and mentally stimulated when you can’t play with them. The toys are designed to be filled with treats, and they challenge kitty to retrieve the treats through varied openings in the toys.
Rotate toys in and out. Don’t keep the same toys out in the same spot all the time – this will almost guarantee that your cats will get bored with them. Put some toys away for a week or two, and then bring them out again. Your cats will think they got a brand new toy. Of course, you don’t want to do this if your cat has a favorite toy that she plays with all the time.
Cat toys don’t need to be expensive. To a cat, almost everything can become a toy: grocery bags with the handles cut off, boxes, toilet paper rolls, milk carton tops, tissue paper – in a cat’s mind, these were all just made to be played with. Some cats enjoy chasing bubbles, or batting Q-tips around the bathtub. Think like a cat, and you may be surprised at the things you already have in your home that make the purr-fect cat toy.
How to redirect play aggressive behavior
Never play with your cats using your hands
Cats will come to associate your hand as just another toy, and they won’t understand why it’s okay to grab and kick the mouse, but not your hands.
Distract your cat with an appropriate toy
If you have an ankle grabber, always carry a toy with you. When you see your cat approaching, toss the toy ahead of you to distract him.
Give your cat a time-out
Stop any play and interaction with your cat the instant he starts to play rough or scratch or bite you. Leave the room, or direct your attention elsewhere. Don’t pick up your cat to remove him from the area, his energy will be already heightened from playing, and trying to physically interact with him may lead to aggression. Be consistent about this and don’t inadvertently reward bad behavior.
Never punish your cat
It goes without saying that you should never yell at your cat, or hit or chase her. Do not use squirt bottles to correct unwanted behavior. Punishment only ever accomplishes one thing: it will make your cat afraid of her, and make her more aggressive. It will also ruin your bond with your cat.