February 2015 Issue

Unlike Adults Battling Over Resources, Kittens Learn the Limits of Roughness


When one kitten no longer enjoys play fighting and tries to escape, he wants the game over. Distract the more aggressive combatant.

As engaging as kittens’ play fighting is — and hours of YouTube can attest to it — the behavior serves a serious purpose. “That’s how kittens learn to stalk, to hunt and how rough to be, or not to be, with people and each other,” says animal behaviorist Tracy Kroll, DVM. “Kittens learn from each other what hurts.”

The challenge for owners is determining when to intervene in unbridled chases, leaps and attacks. “If one kitten is no longer enjoying the play behavior and is hissing and trying to escape, he wants the game to be over,” Dr. Kroll says. “With young cats, each has a time limit for games.”

More often than not, their injuries are inadvertent, resulting in scratches to the eyes or torn ears. As in the case of adult cats, don’t use your hands to intervene in a fight. An extended hand can be as temping as the other kitten, Dr. Kroll says. “Distract the more rambunctious kitten with a fishing-pole feather toy.”

She also discourages clients from “hand play” with kittens, especially the game of moving their hands under a blanket like a mouse. When the owner rolls over in bed, the cat can bite their feet. Game over.

Her parting advice for owners of solo cats who lack the chance to indulge their instincts like predatory behavior with other kittens: “They still need to play. We get into a trap of saying cats are ‘aloof.’ Perhaps they are in comparison to Lab puppies. But they have enrichment needs. Get out there and play!”