Play aggression is usually seen in young cats and kittens. Usually stalking, pouncing, and even hopping sideways are seen. The cat will bite or occasionally scratch moving hands, feet, or the family member moving through the house. It is most common in single cat households where the cat is alone for much of the day. Playing roughly with the kitten or encouraging it to bite or swat at hands and feet also encourages play aggression. Sometimes play aggression is seen in multi-cat households when the other cat is old or debilitated or very passive. Orphan kittens that were hand raised or weaned early are frequently play aggressive as they did not receive socialization by the queen. They do not learn to sheathe their claws or inhibit their bites.
1. Often the easiest solution is to add a second cat or kitten of similar age and playful temperament. They will play with each other and aggressive play will be inhibited because the new companion will bite back or become defensive when play becomes too aggressive.
2. Never use physical punishment (hitting or swatting) to stop the play aggression. This can cause the aggression to escalate and transform into fear aggression.
3. Treatment is fairly straightforward. Increased play activity involving moving toys at least 15 minutes one to two times a day is critical.
a. Fishing pole toys / string toys with toys at the end of a cord. These encourage pouncing and stalking. Never leave toys with strings out where the cat can reach it when not supervised to avoid string eating and possible surgery.
b. Laser pointers: play laser tag. Do not shine directly in the cat’s eyes. You can be watching TV and playing with the cat at the same time!
c. Hand-made toys such as old socks stuffed with crinkly paper or tissues.
d. Mouse-in-the-house mechanical toys. These move around the house. Use Google for websites that offer these toys.
e. Kong-type toys stuffed with kibble that the kitty bats around and is rewarded with the food being released.
4. Play aggression may occur in certain areas of the house such as the hallway from the bedroom to the bathroom (a favorite location). Keep ping pong balls available to throw down the hall in front of you to redirect your cat’s attention on to an appropriate object.
5. Keep an air canister (used to clean computer keyboards) next to the chair or sofa where attacks on a seated individual occur. A water squirt gun may also be used. When the cat is observed to be starting the aggression, spray the kitty with the water or compressed air. The point is to startle the kitten so it stops the behavior as it starts.
6. Do not play directly with your hands or feet and your cat. Always have a toy or other object in between your hands and feet and their teeth and claws. Otherwise you are sending mixed messages to your cat and will confuse them.
7. Do not push your cat always when it bites at you. This escalates the play to your cat and it will come right back and bite harder.
8. Put a belled safety collar on your cat. This will help you (or the other cats in the household) detect the presence of the aggressor more easily and help you redirect its play behavior.
9. Reward the behavior you want to have continue. Do not pet or try to cuddle or give attention to the kitty after it bites or scratches – give it a 15 minute time-out. Reward your cat with food treats and petting when it is acting calm.
10. Playing with your cat is a reward – these kitties need active play and attention as they are usually high energy. Fifteen minutes twice a day of active play is a minimum needed and some cats need more.
11. Medication is usually not needed to address play aggression. If another cat is the target of the play aggression, sometimes the target cat becomes anxious enough to require anti-anxiety medications.
12. There are other types of aggression that cats can display, and sometimes more than one type is seen at the same time. Treatment may differ for these types of behavior. Please call us if problems persist. Most play aggression is resolved if sufficient moving-toy play is given.
13. Finally, our goal is to help you change the behavior of your cat to stop play aggressive behavior. Any pet can bite or scratch under certain circumstances, especially when they become fearful or are in pain. There is no treatment plan or medication that guarantees that the pet will never bite or scratch again. Use common sense and avoid trying to hold or touch an upset cat. Seek medical attention if a bite or severe scratch occurs.
14. Please call us with an update regarding your cat’s behavior in one to two weeks, earlier if you have any questions or concerns.