“Are my cats fighting or playing?” is one of the most common questions I get asked. It’s easy to understand why, because cats predatory behavior is almost the same as their play behavior. I’ll share with you some quick tips so you can tell the difference.
Cat Fighting Behavior
First, it’s important to remember that cats, especially neutered/spayed cats, rarely want to actually fight. Their behavior patterns are designed to avoid a physical fight, which could lead to injury. Fighting is a last resort.
Look for these behaviors:
- Vocalization. Cats fighting will hiss, growl, and yowl.
- Mouth. Fighting cats will bite each other and pull fur out. Sometimes, the skin is broken and fang marks are left behind.
- Claws. Nails are out and scratches will appear on one or both cats’ faces or bodies. (Note: Even during play, sometimes cats accidentally scratch each other, especially if they don’t have their nails trimmed on a regular basis.)
- Fur. Cats will either poof or flatten their fur.
- Body Posture. Fighting cats stand with an arched back to look bigger or flatten their bodies to look smaller. A fighting cat may also lean back (forward if playing) or lay on one side so they can easily scratch and bite if necessary (see video below).
- Ears. Since ears are easily inured during a fight, cats pull them back to protect them when they are scared or unsure.
- Eyes. When a cat is fearful or fighting, their pupils dilate to allow more light into the eye.
- Whiskers. Fearful cats will pull back their whiskers tight to their face. In addition, offensively aggressive cats will point their whiskers forward.
- Body Position. While a cat that wants to fight will take a position of dominance on top of the other cat, playing cats often take turns with who is on top.
- Tail. A thumping tail is usually an indicator that a cat is agitated.
- Activity. An aggressor will continue to chase the submissive cat, who often tries to get away.
- Timing. Fighting is consistent, without breaks. Playing cats take breaks and start and stop.
- Scratching Objects. Fighting cats will not stop to scratch objects.
In Action: One Cat Plays, One Cat Fights
It’s also important to realize that sometimes one cat wants to play and the other doesn’t, like in this video. The gray cat, Beaker, wants to play. The tabby, Vito, does not. Watch their body language. Because Vito was the alpha, he doesn’t run away and stands his ground, but you’ll see his body lean back and him flop on one side. Beaker eventually gets the message.
Cat Play Behavior
If you see these behaviors, there’s a good chance your cat is playing:
- Vocalization. It’s not uncommon for playing cats to sometimes hiss. Hissing is a reflex and not a choice, so sometimes excited behavior can result in a hiss (just think about how closely related excitement and anxiety are for us). You may also hear some meowing, especially during wrestling.
- Mouth. Biting is light and more like nipping. The teeth don’t break the skin.
- Claws. Playing cats retract nails.
- Fur & Body Posture. Playing cats have relaxed bodies (not tense), and may lean forward. Sometimes they flop over, roll and expose their entire belly. They may gently paw at the other cat or try to grab them. Kittens may also go up on their hind legs, side step, or hop.
- Ears. Even when playing, sometimes cats will pull their ears back, but more often they are in a normal position.
- Eyes. When a cat is stalking and about to pounce, their pupils are dilated. As they play with another cat, their pupils may stay larger than normal, or return to normal size.
- Whiskers. The whiskers will be forward and fanned out.
- Body Position. Playing cats will alternate who is on top when wrestling.
- Tail. A playful cat’s tail will be up and the tip may quiver or move.
- Activity. Look for reciprocal activity. One cat may run away, but if they return for more interaction, it’s a good indicator of play.
- Timing. During play, there is a lot of starting and stopping.
- Scratching Objects. While cats play, they’ll stop for a few seconds to scratch objects like scratching posts.
- Grooming. Playing cats will often stop and groom (the more dominant may groom the more submissive or there could be mutual grooming).
Watch these behaviors while two kittens play:
Keep in mind, when you ask, “Are my cats fighting or playing?” you should also ask yourself if it looks like they’re having fun. Entertained and engaged cats are happy cats, so they are most likely playing.
To see more videos of cats playing and fighting, check out this video from Jackson Galaxy.