A few weeks ago, we talked about toy aggression in our feline friends. In that article, we touched on play aggression as one of the root causes for that troublesome issue. Today, though, we are going to talk about it a little more in-depth, because it is, in and of itself, a much larger problem that can take a toll on kitty-loving households. If you think you are living with a play aggressive cat, then this article may be for you, as we are going to discuss what it is, why it pops up, and what can be done to help it.
What is Play Aggression in Cats?
Let's start by busting one common myth right off the bat: a play aggressive cat can be just about any age. Why is it important to make this distinction? Because many people believe that play aggression is solely the domain of kittens, and an adult or mature cat who demonstrates this behavior is either mean or flat-out feral. This misunderstanding can lead to some fairly dire consequences, as some people will believe that their belligerent adult cat cannot be helped, thus resulting in said cat ending up abandoned.
Now that we have that all cleared up, let's get into the gritty details. So, to answer the question, we need to delve a little bit into normal feline behavior. Most cats spend their whole lives playing. For a cat, play is directly correlated with hunting. As kittens, this form of play is meant to help them develop said hunting skills, while into adulthood, it helps hone and keep those skills sharp. Hunting behaviors are perfectly natural, and for most kitties,they are fairly well contained to regular play sessions. For play aggressive cats, however, these behaviors become especially intense, and are often directed not just at toys or random fuzzies found on the floor, but instead at their owners, household pets, or other cats.
Play aggressive behaviors can encompass normal hunt-style play maneuvers – batting, swatting, chasing, etc. – but tend to be on the rougher side. Additionally, they may include sudden, unprovoked attacks, and involve biting, gnawing and scratching. Vocalizations like growling, hissing, and angry yowling are also not uncommon during aggressive bouts of play.
Why Some Cats are Play Aggressive?
Have you ever encountered a kitty who was perfectly lovely – purring and rubbing and being all adorable – then BAM! he's nipping at your fingers? One of the hallmarks of play aggression in cats is sudden, seemingly unprovoked bouts of “anger.” In a lot of cases, though, what your cat is experiencing isn't actual anger so much as over-stimulation. Something about your movements said to him, “It's time to attack,” and he followed his instincts. So why is this, exactly? Well, there could be a lot of reasons. Let's look at some of the most common.
Too Much Energy, Not Enough Appropriate Play
Although a play aggressive cat can be any age, many do fall under the heading of kitten or young adult. Because of this, he's likely full of all sorts of vim and vigor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, provided that all of that energy has some sort of appropriate outlet. If not, though, it can result in play aggression. Regardless of age, our feline friends need stimulation – both physical and mental. Bored cats will find ways to entertain themselves, which – if not provided ample play sessions or the right types of toys – can mean that they will start to use you or the other household critters as their playthings.
It might seem cute, watching a teensy tiny kitten try to be a mighty hunter against the foe that is your finger, but ultimately you will end up with a super predator on your hands... quite literally. When a kitten is taught that appendages are playthings, he will carry it into adulthood. This means that everything on you – or his fellow housemates – will be considered fair game. Worse still, it can be hard to unlatch a play aggressive cat once he hooks himself onto you, as he will see this “just part of the game.”
Not Enough Socialization
Going back to kittenhood for a moment, another reason for feline play aggression is a lack of socialization during vital formative periods. If a kitten was separated from his mother or litter mates early on, he may simply have not learned important social cues. As kittens become more coherent, they start to engage in forms of social play. During these play sessions, if that wee little hunter-in-training gets a tad too rough, his playmates or mother will let him know with a startling noise or a gentle swat. If your cat missed out on that social learning, he may not know what is and is not appropriate when it comes to playtime.
How to Retrain a Play Aggressive Cat
Make Sure Other Forms of Aggression Aren't to Blame
Your first step to retraining your play aggressive cat is to rule out anything underlying. There are other forms of aggression that a cat may exhibit. For instance, if your fuzzy little pal is stressed out or scared, chances are he will display a lot of the same behaviors as a play aggressive cat, like hissing or biting. Cats who are generally irritated – maybe they don't like certain parts of their bodies touched, for instance – may also show signs of aggression. Finally, it's worth noting that cats who are ill or in pain may also behave in a hostile manner when interacted with.
All of that said, it's a good idea to winnow down the list by a process of elimination. First, get kitty to the vet to make sure that he is sound and healthy. Next, consider how YOU interact with him. Does he only get aggressive when you pet him a certain way or touch certain areas? Has anything in your household changed that could be causing stress? If something pops up at the vet, or if you start to notice certain patterns in your kitty-human interactions, then start by addressing those issues first. If, on the other hand, nothing comes up during your investigation, then you can move on to the next steps.
Start By Setting Boundaries
If play aggression is already a regular issue in your household, then it's time to start setting boundaries. If you were the culprit of the hand-wrestling matches, do not engage in them any further. Stop... seriously... stop! When your cat instigates a round, gently push back – as opposed to pulling away, which will only make him latch on harder – then, when he stops, step away from him completely. Give him time to cool off a little.
Introduce Appropriate Play
Once things have simmered down a bit, chances are that your cat will still be full of the energy that started that inappropriate wrestling match. While you don't want to initiate round two, you do want to help him shake off all of that extra electricity. If he truly loves to grapple, replace your hand with a kicker toy and let him have at it. On the other hand, if any toy will do, start whipping out anything you have on hand. Play a game of fetch, lead him around the room and up and down the stairs with a teaser, whatever it takes.
Schedule Regular Play Sessions
All of the steps above remedy in-the-moment play aggression, but in the end you want to help prevent it from popping up in the first place. As we mentioned above, all that energy – mingled with boredom – can be a real issue for a play aggressive cat. That said, setting up regular, lively play sessions will go a long way in keeping that aggression at bay. Again, though, do not start or tolerate play sessions that begin with hands or feet. Spend some time finding out some other things kitty might like, rotate regularly, and keep as close to your schedule as possible.
Offer Plenty of Solo Toys
Although it's a great idea to keep a regular schedule up and running, it's also important to allow for solo play times. Because things pop up that can prevent you from keeping your play date, and also because a cat's burst of energy doesn't always show up on your schedule, it's important to have plenty of stimulating, interactive toys on hand. Think, robotic toys that run on a timer or come to life when touched, or simple playthings made of life-like materials that stimulate your cat's imagination.
Enrich His Life and Environment
Playtime isn't the only thing that can help a play aggressive cat. Creating an overall enriching environment can go a long way in keeping kitty out of attack mode. For example, having plenty of places to hide or perch can keep your kitty physically stimulated – thus reducing play aggression. Puzzles and toy feeders, on the other hand, will stimulate your cat's brain, which will help to reduce boredom.
A play aggressive cat can be a pain... in your hands, on your ankles, just about any bit of exposed flesh, really. But this bad habit can – and should – be helped with some simple retraining, patience, and a little bit of time.
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