So I have a new kitten (8 weeks). She's adorable as anything but she engages in a lot of "play" fighting (scratching, pawing, biting, pouncing, etc). It doesn't bother me at all ( I find it cute that she thinks she can take me down ) but a) I don't want her to develop into an aggressive cat, but also b) I'm just wondering how sure we are that cats actually "play". Playing seems like such a human concept, that it seems weird to ascribe such behaviours to cats. She certainly chases after balls, yarn, etc, but how do we know that it's just playing, as opposed to a bad attempt at hunting?


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    If you've ever seen a real cat fight, you can tell there's a very big difference between playing and fighting. They're very fast, very vicious, it's quite scary to be on the receiving end. Even very tame cats, you will know the difference if they are actually fighting.
    – Kai
    Aug 26, 2016 at 2:32

2 Answers 2


Play is almost universal among animals with large enough brains to react/interact creatively with their siblings and surroundings. It is far from being specific to humans, and not limited to juveniles. Zoos have learned that providing "enrichment activities" for animals makes them happier, healthier, and less frustrated.

At its base, play is enjoyment in practicing skills that the animal needs. Balance, coordination, pattern analysis, social skills are all improved by practice, and the animal is motivated to practice partly by finding challenges interesting. Liking (reasonably safe) challenge leads directly to play.

We can't prove that animals are aware of this as play, without instrumenting their brains. But the evidence from observation of how they interact with toys and with each other leaves very little room for doubt.


My cats are very aggressive at play. Even after several years together, they still chase, tackle, wrestle, pin, and bite with a great deal of vocalization that sounds like they are tearing each other apart. It has never been a problem — they are the best of friends and get along famously — but here is what I look for to make sure play-aggression isn't turning into violence or bullying:

  • Is it reciprocal?
    Does one give chase and then the other? When one is dominating (winning), does the other get a chance, or is one constantly taking every lull in the action trying to get away?
  • Are the claws in when it counts?
    There's a lot of swatting and grabbing where one grabs onto the other with a type of "bear hug" while the back legs go to town in an almost kangaroo-like kicking. They might show their claws in display when rearing up, but if the claws go to work and the hair starts flying in chunks or drawing blood, obviously they're no longer playing. Mock aggression should not be causing injury or damage.
  • Does the victim "roll over" onto their back?
    If a cat were really trying to defend itself, it wouldn't roll over and display its midline. It makes them vulnerable. A cat exposing its midline to another is a display of trust and encouragement. It's a way to say, "I trust you; come and get me."
  • Do they sit together quietly?
    If there was some sort of on-going territorial aggression, the aggressor would not likely tolerate the other cat in its space. Keep a mental note to make sure they are regularly spending time together without aggressive behavior. If one is spending all its time in another part of the house or every encounter means a [play] fight, that may be a sign of bullying or unwanted territorial behavior.

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