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.

Structured playtime

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.

17 Comments on How to Prevent and Correct Play Aggression in Cats

  1. Please help!!

    I let my parents watch after my cat while I was out of town for a weekend, and they used lights to play with her. 🙁 Now she chases every light she sees and is uninteresting in her regular toys. What can I do to get my cat back?

  2. We rescued a weeks old Arabian Mau who was quite literally on death’s door. The vet said if he made it through the night, he’d be okay. 2 and a half years later, he’s healthy and active. However, as a rescued feral cat, he did not have a mother or littermates. He was hand raised in my family and with a dog. In spite of the fact that I literally nursed him back to life through bottle feeding and constant care, he now is aggressive with me. I know that it’s a form of play aggression to a certain extent but his ears are flat and his meow is distinctly aggressive. He used to let me pick him up but no longer. He’s attacked my face, narrowly missing my eye. He locks around my ankle with all four paws/claws, teeth, and ears flat. I have tons of different types of toys and rotate through them, playing with him at least 30 minutes every morning. He’ll wander off when he’s had enough then come up and attack. He jumps up on the back of my chair to get the back of my head and neck. The only physical issue is a fibrous kidney which the vet is keeping an eye but should not be causing him pain. All that said, he loves my daughter and she can do whatever she wants with him: pick him up, cuddle, etc. I don’t understand why his aggression is directed toward me given I was the one who nursed him back to health and spent the most time with him.
    I would appreciate any suggestions.

  3. My kitten is 4 months old. She is a sweetheart and loves to sleep in my lap, but when she wakes up she wants to pounce on me. I know that she is playing, but before I know it she jumps on me with claws extended and she always draws blood. As cats grow do they stop pouncing on their owners with claws extended?

    • Since you know this happens when she wakes up, be ready for it. Always have a toy within reach to distract her, and as she starts to wake up, toss the toy for her so she’ll go after the toy rather than pounce on you.

  4. I adopted a two year old declawed male cat three weeks ago. He’s been very loving and affectionate to my husband and me. He’s jumped on my calves a few times and I took this as a sign he wanted me to play with him, which I did.

    But this morning, twice, he pounced on me and BIT me in the butt, drawing blood each time.

    Is this his idea of play? How do I stop this? I love the little guy but he’s really making me paranoid about being bitten again.

  5. Great article Ingrid!

    Whenever I get a package and if there is shipping paper, I make sure I keep it. The cats absolutely love playing with shipping paper! I leave it out in the hallway, next to the “tunnels” I make for them (out of those collapseable laundry baskets found at discount stores; there’s an opening on one end and I cut out an pening on the opposite end). They dive bomb into the paper, I can shape it (when it’s new, before they have torn and crinkled the paper to death) making little mountains they can hide behind. They adore this! Sometimes I’ll use Cat Dancer or Cat Catcher (mouse) or the laser toy along the paper, making our play time interactive. The paper is good for solo or interactive play — and cheap too!!

    I think I’m going to start buying shipping paper regularly, instead of waiting for packages. 🙂

  6. any tips on how to teach a 4 yr old male not to be aggressive play or otherwise?? I’ve had him since he was 6 months but he must not have been socialized and terrorizes my 9 yr old female who has health issues.

  7. I am always amazed with my cats. Of all of the toys and gimmicks that I have gotten for my cats, they are entertained the most by a cardboard box or paper bag. I do have to be careful with the plastic bags.

  8. I have always *rough-housed* with my cats when playing. I don’t mind the rough play. I also don’t care about cat scratches. Playing and having fun with my *kids* is more important. When I get tired of playing, I quit. My *kids* have never given me any issues by continuing to *attack* me when I decide I am done playing. I talk to them as though they were little toddlers — even when getting them to be nice to each other. It has always worked for me — don’t know why, but it always works — I truly think my *kids* think I’m Mom Cat and when Mom Cat speaks, they listen. I never punish them for anything that would be my fault, and I generally don’t punish them at all — have never needed to do so. I just speak sternly to them if they are misbehaving, and they really do listen to me. Since I do have 12 (all adopted/rescued), they do tend to keep themselves entertained for the most part, but I love to touch, cuddle, kiss and play with them as well. I love my *kids* — they are the light of my life. There is absolutely nothing better than coming home from work to such unconditional love and attention>>both ways!! Great post Ingrid!! ♥♥♥

    • I hear you 🙂 I also don’t have issue with a bit of rough-housing with my kids, but I’ve also taught them “Be Gentle” with their biting. Bites can get infected and be a pain to get healed up. I totally believe they have the intelligence to learn and understand, and I treat them accordingly… with much success. I foster, and all my fosters have gone to good homes and have received rave reviews. Like you, I’m “Mamma Cat,” and they learn appropriate behavior… of course, I do it in cat-behavior terms, I realize they’re not just little people, LOL 🙂 One thing I’ve learned, is… when play-fighting, and they get too rough, I hiss and spit, say “Be Gentle,” and totally and immediately disengage. Done, and done. It usually takes 3-4 times of this, they get the message, and their play-fighting no longer draws blood. Good kitties! Cats are intelligent, and able to learn human language as long as we teach them in cat ways. If you think about it, it’s exactly the same ways that they teach us their language, so it’s not all that tough once we understand how the kids communicate 🙂

      • While “hissing and spitting” may work with some cats, it can backfire in a big way, as cats may perceive that as aggression, and attack in stead of stop.

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