If you’re the proud owner of multiple cats or simply watch your feline friend when he’s outside, you’ve undoubtedly seen them roll around with one another, paws flailing. You know there’s nothing to worry about. They’re simply playing, right? Well, it’s not always so easy to tell. Newcomers to the cat world often run to their pets to try and separate them because they think they’re fighting with the intent to injure one another. We don’t blame them. That line is often a fine one, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. That’s why in this article, we’re going to give you a comprehensive guide to how cats play with one another, as well as running you through a scenario to give you an example.
Why Do Cats Play?
All cats, whether they’re kittens or adults, play. As obligate carnivores and natural predators, these play sessions revolve entirely around honing their hunting instincts. Pouncing, stalking, and kicking are all ways that cats will catch and kill their prey in the wild. These behaviors are key to ensure their independence and ability to stay alive once their mother no longer cares for them, and these habits continue even when they find a home indoors with you and are getting fed from a can. For these reasons, play between cats will always look aggressive. The difference between the two lies in the subtleties of the relationship and behaviors between your specific cats, which we’ll quickly look at now.
#1: Understand the relationship of your cats
The first thing you absolutely must understand is how your cats view each other in the household. Just like with people, cats who don’t like one another will try their hardest to stay separate. Maybe one will claim the upper floor, while the other will have the basement. This clear demarcation of territory is what keeps the peace in a household where cats don’t get along. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to these subtle nuances in behavior. If these cats are suddenly rolling around in what looks like a fight to the death, it might actually be one. If, on the other hand, your cats sleep together, eat together, and groom one another, then that’s a fairly strong indication that they belong to the same social circle and play should be expected.
We hear your concerns, however. If you just introduced a second cat to your home, then how can you tell the difference if they don’t have an existing relationship to examine? Well, for that you need to read on.
#2: Read their body language
Since cats play to hone their hunting instincts, it stands to reason that things can get a little bit dicey. The difference between play and fighting is the use of their lethal weapons. Claws and teeth are both the tools of choice when cats are hunting their prey, and when locked in battle with another cat, they won’t hesitate to use them either. When cats are playing then, their claws should always be retracted, and biting should never enter the equation. Kicks, slaps, and headbutts are all to be expected, but the second you see the emergence of something that could bite or scratch the other, then it’s no longer just fun and games.
In a similar vein, you can visually see the difference between the two by whether one is trying to intimidate the other. Hissing or fluffed up fur (to look larger) are both common in aggressive cats, and are foolproof indicators that playtime is over.
#3: Be sure that the behavior is reciprocal
This should go without saying, but if only one cat is doing the “playing,” then chances are they’re not both enjoying it. Even if you never see a claw or bite, any slaps, kicks, or wrestles where one cat clearly is dominating the other might warrant a closer look at the situation.
Into the Mind of a Cat
While these tips aren’t complicated, they are slightly nuanced and require some understanding of the feline brain. To make things a little more concrete, we offer a dramatized account of a real play session between two of our favorite cats. This should demonstrate the principles we’ve just applied to help you spot them before they happen.
The sun shines through the window, eradicating the darkness of the night. The humans are gone. Perhaps they went out to get us more food, or perhaps they just went out for a walk. Regardless, they won’t be home for hours.
I get up and stretch, feeling the cotton underneath my paws. My nails get caught on the fibers, and I begin to scratch and bite at the frayed bedsheets until my paws are free. To my left, Bumble still lays in a ball, deep in his slumber. I leave him be and leap off the bed to begin my morning tour of the premises. The hallways are clear, having been cleaned and vacuumed thoroughly just yesterday. The kitchen is clean, but the faint smell of chicken wafts through the air. I press my nose against the tall metal and plastic box but feel nothing but a hint of cool air. I tug at the door, to no avail. It’s too heavy to open.
On my way back to the bedroom, something catches my eye. A black shadow moving past the doorway. I freeze. My pupils dilate, and I turn my ears towards the room, listening for any hint of movement.
All I hear is the water from my fountain cascading down from the spout and rippling through the pool at the bottom. There’s no other sound.
Tentatively, I take one step forward. Then another. I’m almost through the door when the corner of the bed draws my attention. It’s empty. Bumble is gone.
A light smack in the face snaps me to attention, then another springs me into action. I stand on my hind legs and return the favor, and before long our four paws are slicing through the air in a whirlwind of make-believe violence. My right brushes against his fur, while his left smacks me on the nose. Sensing a stalemate, we drop to all fours and break apart.
We circle each other cautiously. His piercing green eyes stand out from his smooth black fur. He senses my will for vengeance and drops to his back.
I take the initiative and pounce on top of him. My front paws smack his ribs as I feel the thrill of having gained the upper-hand, but it’s not to last. I feel his paws wrap around my waist before a flurry of blunt kicks buffets the side of my face. I resist the urge to bite, and instead bury my head deeper into his stomach to avoid his blows.
Bumble’s weight shifts below me as I feel him trying to escape. I latch on around his neck, unsuccessfully trying to keep him in place. He rolls away and shakes his head. Noticing the displacement of his fur, I allow him a few seconds to groom it neatly into place.
Lick. Lick. Lick…
His tongue pores over every detail of his coat. I wait and wait some more. It’s endless. I soon notice tufts of fur of my own and take the opportunity to join him.
Lick. Lick. Lick…
We lock eyes and know it’s time to resume battle. I leap into the air, prompting Bumble to flee down the hallway. My paws lose traction against the hardwood floors and I slide into the wall as I turn the corner. Bumble makes it to the kitchen first and turns the tables on me. As I find my footing, I see his large black body barreling back down towards me.
I can tell that he has more energy than I, so I let him wrestle me to the ground which allows me to pay him back for his earlier kicks. A couple of hard slaps glance the side of my head, but soon start to slow down. They become fewer and fewer, and each is delivered with less force than before. Before long, we’re both locked into each other’s arms on the hallway floor recovering our stamina.
Bumble stands up, grooming himself once more. However, I’m not quite done yet. With one tentative paw, I lightly tap the top of his head. He stops licking and stares at me, frustrated. I try one more time, to no avail. He doesn’t want to continue.
We sit there in silence, grooming. My stomach begins to rumble, notifying me that I hadn’t yet eaten my breakfast. As if sensing my hunger, Bumble stops licking himself and walks alongside me towards the kitchen. Just as it is every day, our bowl is filled to the brim with food. I notice that he is hungrier and more tired than I, so I concede defeat for the day and allow him to take the first few bites.
We alternate eating from the bowl and listen to the kibble crack under the weight of our jaws. Our shared meal lasts a few minutes before we both turn to our water fountain and rehydrate.
Before long, we leap back onto the bed and I stretch once more. Sharing our corner of the mattress, we curl up into balls and settle in for another nap. I notice a spot of fur that Bumble has neglected, and I put it back into place. He blinks at me, appreciating my efforts.
I regret my defeat, but not the time spent. As I drift off to sleep I think about potential ambush spots for later in the day. Perhaps the cupboards. Or under the bed… Maybe by hiding under the covers, or…
I hope you enjoy your day!