Aggression is an inherent aspect of your cat’s predatory nature: behaviors like stalking, chasing, leaping, pouncing, swatting, and biting are all common displays, and are always a major component of any play session.
Usually, this doesn’t constitute a problem: it’s just how cats play, and catering to your cat’s predatory whims can be pretty fun!
But when your cat becomes play aggressive, things can get very uncomfortable, very quickly: faced with a cat that doesn’t understand that such play is painful and even dangerous for her owner, playtimes with your cat can become a trial rather than a pleasure.
This problem is the number-one most common form of aggression that cats display towards humans. It happens when a bored, under-exercised, and lonely cat becomes overstimulated during play – and typical play-time mock aggression becomes the real deal.
How do cats normally play?
Cats play in two ways: social (or interactive) play, which is directed towards other cats and humans; and solitary play, which is directed towards objects like balled up paper, mobile cat toys, and paper bags.
Play aggression is often present in either of these two modes of play, but it only becomes an issue when people are involved.
What causes play aggression?
Play aggression happens when your cat has an excess of unused energy – usually from a lack of exercise and owner interaction – and, as a result, becomes too rambunctious and vigorous during a play session.
Because all cat play is based around the predatory feline nature, an overstimulated cat vents this excess through an intensification of her normal predatory play: so, instead of swatting at you with claws sheathed, she extends them; instead of mouthing your hand, she gives it a sharp bite.
Unfortunately, the problem is usually self-replicating. The cat is play-aggressive because she’s not getting enough stimulating, interactive play time; but because she demonstrates this behavior whenever she gets played with, her owner plays with her less … which results in more play aggression … which results in even less play … and so on.
How can I tell when my cat’s about to become aggressive?
You can often tell when the play’s getting a bit out of control by paying attention to your cat’s body language and expression.
Normal, non-aggressive feline play behavior includes the ‘play face’, with a half-open mouth and heavily lidded eyes; the sideways hop (often with arched back); and a lightly switching tail (it’s going from side to side, but slowly and gently.)
When your cat’s getting too revved-up, her body language will alter dramatically. Her ears will go back, her tail will start lashing violently from side to side, and her pupils will enlarge. Her movements will also become significantly more vigorous and energetic: there’ll be increased speed and force to her playing.
What should I do when I sense things are getting out of control?
If you think your cat’s getting overexcited, the best thing you can do is to stand up and walk away – before she actually starts to display aggression! You can resume play as soon as she’s calmed down a bit; the idea is to intervene before she has the chance to vent her energy on you.
If it’s too late for this and she’s already started to bite or scratch at you, don’t reward her with attention – not even negative attention. Simply stand up and walk away. Leave the room, if necessary.
At this point, she will most likely try to initiate play with you again. When she does, don’t respond – play initiation is dominant behavior, and if you accede to her demands, it’ll teach her that bothering you for attention results in her getting her own way.
If she’s particularly persistent, or the aggresion is becoming hard to deal with, you can isolate her in a room by herself until she’s calm (which can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes.)
Main do’s and don’ts for play aggression
– Remember, your cat isn’t really trying to ‘attack’ you – her intentions are purely playful. She just has to learn that aggressive behavior isn’t going to result in a rewarding play session for her. In order for her to learn this, you need to be consistent with your reactions: so don’t reward her with attention sometimes, and ignore her at other times. She’ll get confused, and won’t learn to curb her aggressive behavior.
– Don’t ever use physical punishment to correct play aggression. There are two reasons for this: one, if you actually hurt your cat, this will result in increased aggression on her behalf; and two, even if it doesn’t hurt, it’s still going to scare her, which results in owner-avoidance and a general deterioration of your relationship.
– Since play aggression is almost always due to boredom and an excess of energy, the best thing you can do is to provide lots of opportunities for stimulating interactive play with your cat. Try to make it aerobic exercise: get her running around, chasing things, climbing, pouncing, and so on.
– Make sure the play is on your terms. Don’t allow your cat to initiate play – this is habit-forming, and teaches her that you can be manipulated.
– If you find it difficult to make the time to play with your cat, scheduling in a couple of set ten-minute playtimes each day might help. Paying attention to your cat’s circadian rhythms (watching to see when she’s the most active) is a good idea as well: play with her when she’s wide-awake and raring to go. She’ll get more out of it.
What toys should I use?
Cats are predators. Their play is instinctively based around behaviors that will increase their ability to hunt.
Because of this, cats prefer toys that resemble prey – that is, small, mobile objects that move.
Try things like ping-pong balls, scrumpled-up paper, cardboard boxes, paper bags, dangling ropes affixed to the ceiling or doorways, scratching posts, and skeins of yarn for solitary play; and fake mice, cat dancers (like a mobile which you dangle and jerk around for your cat to play with), wands, and anything that rolls which you can toss for her for interactive play.
If she likes to climb and explore, you can also try creating an obstacle course for her to enjoy: rig up some branches, pillars, shelves, perches, and climbing ramps etc for her to clamber around on. Most cats enjoy being up high anyway, so this should go down a treat. You can also try hiding some small, tasty treats in various places to encourage her to get climbing.
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