Cats Who Play Rough

Play is an important way for cats to develop physical and mental abilities, as well as social skills. When cats play, they pretend to stalk, chase, pounce on, swat and bite prey, and they are especially attracted to moving things! Common targets are people’s legs as they walk by and hands typing or gesturing.

Cats learn when young to inhibit bites and sheathe claws when playing, however how much a cat learns to inhibit their play varies. Other factors that can influence play aggression include long hours spent alone without opportunities to play as well as being encouraged as kittens to chase and attack people’s hands and feet. While this can be cute as a kitten, as the cat gets older and stronger, the bites and scratches really start to hurt. By then this behavior can be difficult to modify.

Play or aggression?

While rough play can lead to aggression, there are some key differences between play and other types of aggression.

  • Vocalization:
    • Play: Usually silent or “chattering”
    • Aggression: May hiss, yowl, growl or spit
  • Tail:
    • Play: Mouth may be closed or be held half open
    • Aggression: May hiss, growl, and stare intently at you
  • Movements:
    • Play: Hopping and bouncing, often sideways with an arched back
    • Aggression: Tense muscles, straight-on approach

My cat plays too rough. What can I do?

Provide appropriate outlets for play
  • Make play part of your daily routine. At least twice each day, dedicate 10 to 15 minutes to playing with your cat, ideally before meals. At the end of playtime, always let your cat “catch” the toy one last time and give him a few treats.
  • Make the toys move! Make wand toys jump, fly or skitter across the ground. Alternate moving the toys fast then slow. Toys should move away from your cat to keep them interested (no mouse is going to just walk up to a cat!). Some cats love toys that fly, while others prefer those that skitter across the ground – do some experimenting to find your cat’s preference.
  • Keep your cat running and pouncing to tire them out but be sure to let them catch the toy a few times during play so they don’t get frustrated. 
  • Use different toys each day so they stay interesting and put interactive cat toys away when playtime is over.
Increase enrichment

Your cat may target you for playtime out of boredom. Keep your cat active and engaged by increasing their environmental enrichment.

  • Cats love to explore! Frequently provide new things for your cat to investigate, like paper grocery bags or boxes, or leave a different closet door or drawer open each day.
  • Entertain your cat with videos made for cats. There are lots of free videos of birds and squirrels on the internet.
  • Place a cat tree near screened windows or provide a window perch so your cat can watch the wildlife outside.
  • Consider adopting another cat with a similar energy level. Be sure to thoroughly research how to introduce a new cat to a resident cat to help set both cats up for success.
  • Check out DIY enrichment ideas and tips.

Encourage your cat to entertain themselves by always leaving out some toys that they can use to play on their own, especially when you aren’t home.

  • Rotate the toys so they remain interesting.
  • If your cat likes catnip, try storing the toys in a bag of catnip.
  • Favorite toys for solo play are ping pong balls, mouse toys, bottle caps, or even just a crumpled piece of paper!

Meals also provide great enrichment opportunities. Feed your cat their meals in food puzzle toys to help satisfy your cat’s natural drive to hunt for his food.

Tips for changing behavior
  • When your cat gets too rough, become a statue: fold your arms, look away and don’t move. Being still makes you “boring” to most cats, so usually, they give up and walk away. Wait at least five minutes before giving any attention. This ensures your cat has calmed down before further interaction and teaches your cat that getting too rough with you ends the game.
  • If your cat likes to grab your ankles as you walk by, keep toys or treats with you. Before your cat tries to go for your ankles, toss the treats or toys away from you to encourage the cat to chase the toys or treats instead of your feet.

If your cat continues to bite and scratch you despite following these tips, contact a professional behavior consultant or a veterinary behaviorist for further guidance.

What shouldn’t I do?
  • Do not encourage your cat to play with your hands or feet or any body part. Always encourage your cat to play with toys instead.
  • Do not pet or pick up your cat during or directly after play time.
  • Do not run from the cat or pull away quickly when he starts to get too rough, as this may encourage him.
  • Do not punish your cat. Hitting, scruffing or trying to block your cat with your foot when they get too rough will either encourage your cat to play even harder or tip your cat’s behavior from play to aggression. It could also make your cat afraid of you. Using a water pistol, spray bottle or whistle may stop your cat at the time, but it will not teach him not to ambush you in the future and can often increase aggression.

Still have questions?

Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 x4191

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