As you know, I’m a very gentle cat. I love playtime but I don’t play aggressively. That is partly because I grew up with siblings and learned play etiquette from them. But it’s also because once I came to live here, my human did not encourage rough play. And that’s actually the key to having your cat play nice.
In a best case scenario, your cat had siblings to play with as a kitten. That’s their first introduction to playing etiquette. Their brothers and sisters are quick to tell them when they’ve gone too far and they learn not to play too rough. A cat that was weaned too early or grew up as an onlie is at a disadvantage in this area. They may not learn when rough play goes too far.
Either way, once your cat comes to live with you, they might unlearn their good habits, or the bad ones may become worse, if you inadvertently encourage play aggression. So let’s look at the whole play thing and what it means to kitties in the first place.
For Cats Playtime Means Hunting
In spite of being pampered by humans for eons now, we cats have never lost our hunting instincts. (Well, except maybe for me.) So catch and kill is a big game for us. In fact it’s usually our favorite! We love stalking and leaping out at prey (which for some cats, includes your ankles). We enjoy subduing our catch with a killing bite (which could mean your hand). If no one is telling a cat it’s wrong to play with full claws and biting, how are they to know different?
So there must be some ground rules for playtime. And you need to learn them, and pass them along to your cat.
- Never, ever use your hand to play with a cat. Or any other body part, for that matter. Rough hand play is a recipe for disaster, or at least a shredded hand, and if part of that shredding involves a cat bite, a trip to urgent care. So don’t get started on that, or if you’ve already done that, stop now. And no, those gloves with the toys attached aren’t an acceptable substitute. Your cat still knows that’s your hand.
What to do instead: Use interactive cat toys that keep your hands a long way from the prey (toy). Wand or fishing pole toys are ideal. Interactive play sessions that last about 10 minutes or so will help your cat release a lot of energy. Catnip kickers are fun for cats to play with on their own and are a safe way for them to let out aggressive energy. Just remember—toys are toys. You are not the toy!
- Never physically punish your cat for rough play. You are way bigger than your cat, and cats don’t see punishment as they did something wrong. They see it as an aggressive threat to their safety. If they are already in a heightened state of arousal, they may strike back, making the situation even worse. And even if they flee, it is deeply damaging to your relationship.
What to do instead: If your cat has latched onto your hand, don’t react. Quietly and slowly push your hand towards them. That’s the easiest way to get them to release their grip. Once you’ve gotten your hand back, leave. Just go away, don’t even chastise your cat. The play session is over. Work harder in the future to keep your hands away from a cat who is showing signs of aggression.
- Does your cat have a habit of attacking you as you are walking through a room? Stop moving, other than pushing your leg towards your cat to get them to release it. (Similar to what you would do with your hand.) Then continue to be still until your cat loses interest. Then leave. For it to be play, there needs to be a reaction, so don’t give it to them. You can also carry some of your cat’s favorite toys while walking through their favorite stalking areas, and toss them. That gives them something more appropriate to chase after.
Here are some signs of play aggression to watch out for:
- Dilated pupils and that “wild” look
- Ears pinned back
- Violently swishing tail
- Low growls or hissing
- Twitching fur
- Hair standing up along their neck and spine
Stop engaging with a cat showing these signals. They need time to cool down.
If your cat is playing too aggressively, it is possible they are bored and not getting enough healthy stimulation. Play with them more often. Ideally, you should have a play session at least a couple times a day with your cat. Choose the times they seem to be most active to have safe interactive play sessions. Also consider teaching them some simple tricks like giving paw or sitting up for treats. Keeping your cat mentally engaged is as important as keeping them physically engaged.
I hope this is helpful!
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