What Is Play Aggression?

published on 16 May 2022

Cats can bite for many reasons. I highlighted one of the more common reasons cats may bite, anxiety, in a prior blog post. Today, I want to discuss another common reason cats may bite: play aggression.

"Play" and "aggression" may not be two things you think of as going together, but cats don't necessarily see it the same way we do. For cats, play time is hunting. In fact, one of the best ways you can play with your cat is by simulating hunting to get their natural instincts satisfied!

Unfortunately, much like how we may not understand that a cat biting at us may be an attempt to play, cats may not understand that we don't see their attempts to play as being playful. Plus, bites can hurt!

Cute but painful.
Cute but painful.

What are some signs that your cat's nips may be play aggression as opposed to something else? First, look at how old your cat is: play aggression is more common in kittens and younger cats. While it can occur in older cats, in some cases it may resolve as the cat gets older and mellows out. This isn't something to be relied on as it can continue into adulthood!

Age isn't the only thing that would clue you in to biting being play aggression. The cat's body language is an important clue, too! Cats are more likely to have minimal vocalizations and may seem to stalk humans like they would prey. The cat may also be more likely to hide and ambush the human. The bites may also be inhibited and the cat may stop before skin is broken.

So what can be done? The best course is to contact a veterinarian or professional feline behavior consultant to make sure play aggression is really what is going on. A thorough analysis of your cat's behavior will help you determine if it really is play aggression or if something else. They can give you individualized advice on best next steps as well.

In the meantime,  there are some things you can try to prevent injury and see if they help. The first doesn't directly involve you cat, but it is just as important: Reframe your thinking about the cat's behavior. A cat biting you is scary experience, but in the case of play aggression your cat is not actually trying to harm you. They're trying to play! Looking at the behavior differently will help you maintain your relationship with your cat.

You can prevent play related aggression by being careful how you interact with your cat. Never use fingers, hands, or other body parts as play objects. It may seem harmless to do once in a while, but it teaches your cat that you are a toy. In fact, even if you aren't have a cat with play aggression this is good practice so you don't run into trouble!

When your cat does try to bite, you want to be careful not to reinforce the behavior. This may seem counter intuitive, but cats who are bored or looking for attention may actually enjoy (to some degree!) any attention you give them. Yelling at your cat gives them that attention and they may be more likely to repeat the behavior. Your best reaction is to not move or react at all as this isn't what typical prey would do. Obviously if your cat does break skin, seek immediate medical attention to prevent an infection!

What you can do is redirect your cat toward an appropriate toy. It can help to have toys nearby in places you spend a lot of time in case they are needed. You can also use toys to prevent play aggression by making sure your get gets adequate and stimulating play in.

Interactive play, or play between you and your cat, should be part of your daily routine. Exact play needs vary from cat to cat and depend on the cat's age and personality, but a good rule of thumb is at least two (if not three!) 15 minute play sessions per day spread through the day. While this may seem like a big ask, you will be rewarded with a happy cat and a reduction in play related aggression!

About the author: Joey Lusvardi is a feline behavior consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.

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