Aggressive cat play behaviour

Playing with your cat is fun and enjoyable for both, but when claws and teeth start causing damage, it's time to change tactics

Cat scratches bleeding on hands

Cats need to be cats

Most aggression in cats stems from a combination of early upbringing (or lack of) and breed type. What needs to be remembered is that a cats natural instinct is to use its claws and teeth. These are the tools your cat has to survive in life and asking your cat to not use them is like asking us to not use our thumbs (if you've ever had a thumb out of use you will know how difficult this is) However, the use of claws and teeth to the point of harm is not acceptable behaviour for a family pet so you must find a way to encourage your cat to suppress its natural instincts.


Kitten rules of play

The 'rules of cat play' are established in the rough and tumble of a litter of young kittens. Play too rough and your playmates will scold you, if someone plays too rough with you, you bite them to make them stop. This simple but effective routine sets down the rules for life that playtime can involve claws and teeth but should be gentle, never hard.
Once your kitten starts becoming a fully grown cat it is capable of doing much more damage, and if the rules of play are not well established, or begin to change, then a new standard is set where rough play becomes an ongoing problem.

Enforcing the rule of play

If a kitten is removed from its litter too early (8-12 weeks is a minimum age) it will probably develop behavioural problems, but even a well developed kitten will need continual 'rule reinforcement' to avoid or reverse rough play behaviour. The first thing to do is ignore your cat whenever it starts to play too hard - if it bites or claws too hard simply stop interacting and finish playtime. Be strict with this, don't give in or transfer to a different toy, and in time your cat should learn that aggressive play is not desirable. In extreme cases you will have to avoid any form of play which involves direct contact and instead rely on non contact play like string, balls, or toys. Remember that issuing a telling off or punishment will not work with cats so the best ways to change cat behaviour are to ignore and reward.

Young cat learning to play without claws
A sudden claw in the hand hurts, but the way you react is important

Don't react to aggressive Cat play

Cats often develop pouncing behaviour, usually by hiding behind doors or under beds and pouncing on feet as they pass by. This is great fun for your cat and satisfys a natural instinct to hunt, but not so good for your feet. The only way to curb this is to make it less enjoyable for your cat. If you see your cat preparing to pounce, a quick squirt of water or loud clap will be disliked, but don't shout or punish your cat which could make him afraid of you. In the meantime, you cannot train your cat to stop but you can train yourself not to react, even if it hurts. By not reacting you are removing the response your cat expects and therefore removing the fun and excitement.

Sudden biting during stroking

Many cats show this odd split personality behaviour - one minute you are stroking your cat, and your cat is relaxed and purring, and the next your hand is attacked with teeth and claws. There are various theories for this and depending on the cat it could be that you have touched a sensitive area, that the cat has had enough stroking, or that the cat has decided to turn this intimate bonding time into playtime. It is also possible that the cat has conflicting feelings, on the one hand it is enjoying being groomed and being close to its owner, on the other it is in an extremely vulnerable position and open to attack. Normally you can spot subtle signs that the mood is changing such as a flicking of the tail or movements of the head. Once you can spot these signs in your cat it is time to stop stroking for a while.

Discuss Aggressive Cat Behaviour

You can start a discussion about cat aggression in play here - aggression in cat play

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