Mind of the Cat: 04/06

Play Fighting: Is There Such a Thing?

Are my cats playing or are they fighting? Are there ways that I can tell?

Simple enough, right? In fact, not really; these are actually difficult questions to answer, and sometimes we just cannot tell. It is rather obvious when one cat frequently requires medical attention for bite wounds. But short of that, many cats can look quite wild as they spin around the house and still be just playing.

So is it play? Some basic information may help you get to the truth. First, what is the relationship between the cats in general? Most of us consider the relationship to be good if the cats frequently sleep together, groom each other and greet each other calmly after one has been away. Such cats would be expected to understand each others body language and play appropriately.

Contrast the cats that seem overly concerned about each other. They may spend quite a bit of time together, but they are not calm. Following a separation, one or both cats may rush toward the other. There may be tail flicks or hissing before the cats settle. These signs may reflect underlying anxiety in one of the cats. There may be a subtle struggle for status. This is the troubled relationship. The moment of excitement that occurs during play actually represents a fight.

Another rather common relationship is the one of mutual tolerance. There is no hissing or growling, and the cats seem to set up a time-share system within the home. They may be found together on occasion. And if each cat enjoys play, the two may join in a bit of play from time to time.

Lastly, there is the poor relationship. These are the cats that do not spend time in a room together. One cat generally pursues, and the other flees. One cat probably looks both ways before moving about the house, just in case his housemate is planning an ambush. The relationship is likely stable. If it were not, then help would have been sought to attempt to improve the situation. But, if there are no injuries, then these poor relationships may be tolerated by people. Be suspicious should these cats be caught playing.

By definition, play is mutual. That is, both parties are engaged and, if we can anthropomorphize, appear to be enjoying themselves. This usually means that the cats take turns chasing and running. If there is a toy, both cats take turns batting at it. When both cats are playing, their gestures tend to be exaggerated and varied – high leaps, emphatic swats, tight holds. There is no sign of fear (backing away, hissing) in response to these gestures. That is, both cats understand the language.

Play tends to start fairly abruptly and end even more abruptly. When it is over, both cats are still in the area. It seems as though a bell goes off and the cats trot off or have a nap.

In short, play is just an extension of a good relationship. Play may serve as a valuable way to maintain that good relationship. Even if play seems rare, the communication that occurs during the game may serve to foster security.

Now, contrast the activity that is suspected to be something other than play. If one cat is always chasing, with the other one running for cover, that isnt play. It can be confusing because there may be occasions when there is simply no shelter available. If a victim is pounced upon in the middle of a room, there may be a brief wrestling scene. But in the end, the victim flees with his playmate in hot pursuit.The game ends with one cat in hiding.

Youll Probably Hear Fighting
Another guideline is that when cats are not playing, there is often vocalization. A victim may be heard hissing, growling or yowling as he wrestles or runs. These sounds are not generally heard during normal cat play. Gestures are purposeful and less varied – a series of hard bats instead of a few bats interspersed with some wrestling or short chases.

What to do if in doubt? First, interrupt as soon as possible. Do not shout or punish if you think it may be play, for that could cause fear and aggression. Instead, use a distraction – call the cats for treats or open the refrigerator or feed an extra meal. Then, get a videocamera. Record some interactions and bring them to a veterinarian for review. But remember: Never allow the cats to continue an interaction that could be dangerous, either emotionally or physically, not even for the purpose of a video. Permanent harm could result.

Good luck, and let the games begin!