—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
I cannot tell you the number of times people reach out to me for help and advice on their fighting cats only to have me say, “They’re actually playing.” There’s usually a combination of relief and disbelief when they ask, “Are you sure?!” and I reply, “100%.”
To understand the difference, I want to review when and how these behaviors are learned, because it helps explain why some cats seem like they don’t know how to play or don’t know how to behave around other cats.
Issues in early development can lead to this, so it might not be that your cat is trying to fight – they simply might not know how to play. Then I’ll review the differences between playing and fighting behavior, and finally how to break up cat fights.
Learning to Play
One of the biggest reasons people confuse play with fighting is because play does involve the same skills as hunting. Kittens start exhibiting playful signs around 3-4 weeks old.
Even if they aren’t very good at walking, you may notice them pawing at littermates and nibbling on their ears. Their peak and most active playful period is from 7-14 weeks. They’ll stalk, pounce, and wrestle with littermates and even their mothers.
Kitten development is fascinating and prepares them to be successful hunters. While learning to play, they’re developing coordination and balance, as well as building muscle and muscle memory for play and hunting activities.
Other skills learned during this time include socialization and setting boundaries, which are extremely important as they age and encounter other cats and people.
If a kitten is without a mother or littermates or if they have extreme health issues at a young age, their skills can be impaired. Sometimes they make up for it over time with no problem, but other cats don’t naturally catch up.
The most common issue I’ve seen with singletons (kittens without a mother or littermates at a young age) is that they don’t know how to act with other cats and they don’t properly read social cues cats are sending. This is important because it does play a role in fighting, which we’ll discuss shortly.
Learning to Hunt
I also want to touch on hunting, because it’s so closely related to play, and your cat’s behavior around hunting could tell you a lot about their life as a kitten. Additionally, it explains why cats may get overstimulated during play or how play can turn into aggression, and both of these scenarios can result in a fight in a multicat home.
Cats are fantastic observational learners, which means they learn from watching how other cats behave. Their mother will teach them how to hunt through this method.
She will bring home dead prey and present it to the kitten to bat around. Then, she’ll present an injured prey item. Lastly, a live prey item for the kitten to kill on their own. This is really the reason cats “play” with prey – it’s all part of the hunt.
There are some hunting skills that are inherited, but not all traits are. If a cat doesn’t fully learn to hunt from its mother, it will still have the instinct to apply its playful skills to catch prey.
If living indoors, these cats may catch prey but not kill it, and continue trying to “play” with it, just like they did as a kitten. It isn’t just because they didn’t fully learn, but part of it is because you keep them well fed, so their predatory drive to survive is likely not as strong.
Cats that don’t know how to hunt from stalking through killing can still learn at an older age through watching a very well-versed mouser.
Fighting is instinctual in all of us, and it can be defensive or offensive, depending on the situation. Fighting in cats is more common in unaltered males who are fighting for territory, or a queen with kittens close by.
Overall, most cats, especially altered cats, want to avoid an actual fight, which is why they either flatten their bodies to look smaller, or poof out their fur like a Halloween kitty to look bigger.
The goal is to get the challenger to retreat, but if they feel their safety or territory is threatened, they will engage as a method of protection and self preservation.
When Cats Don’t Know How to Cat
Now, if a cat didn’t learn how to “be” with other cats, they may not only misread cues, but they may send mixed signals to other cats. This leads to cat fights because the not-properly-socialized cat tries to play, but their actions are interpreted by the other cat as a challenge to a fight.
Through fostering, I’ve worked with a number of cats over the years that other cats simply don’t like, and it isn’t one cat being picky. Many cats are accepted by some and not by others, but there are certain cats that seem to be unaccepted by everyone.
These cats also have issues with play. They don’t seem to know what to do. It’s impossible to know, but based on this evidence, it’s likely they didn’t have littermates or a mother for the full time necessary to develop these skills.
Play can be learned by watching other cats. One of my current fosters sits outside of the room while I play with the other cats and just watches it all. Only recently has she started to exhibit signs of play.
Social skills are a little more challenging to learn at an older age. Sometimes, pairing these cats with kittens can help them because kittens will appropriately set boundaries in ways that we (and adult cats) simply cannot.
Play vs. Fight
Behavior between cats in their daily lives can be great indicators of their actual relationship. Cats that lounge together, snuggle, knead, or groom are cats that are very comfortable together.
Warning signs that a fight may be around the corner include stalking and staredowns, as well as passive aggression, when one cat just walks out of a room every time another cat enters.
You need to be aware of these behaviors pre-fight because they also indicate the victim vs. the aggressor, which cannot always be determined during an actual fight.
Now, let’s take a look at some behaviors and body language and identify what they most likely mean. Keep in mind, there are no definite answers here, but you can gather evidence and develop the most likely conclusion.
Before Activity - Fight
Cats don’t want to fight, so hisses, growls, and drawn out meows are warning signs. The cats hope one retreats, but standoffs will likely result in a fight.
During Activity - Likely Fight, But Possibly Play
In adult cats, hisses and growls may be one cat’s way of telling another cat they’ve had enough playtime, or it can just be part of the overstimulation that comes with playing. Kittens make all of these noises when they’re playing with each other, but it doesn’t mean anything bad. You’ll need to pay attention to other aspects to more accurately determine if it’s playtime or a brawl.
Sheathed - Play
Cats don’t tend to draw their claws when they are playing – there’s no reason to. No claws is a good sign. But keep in mind if you don’t keep your cat’s nails trimmed, they could unintentionally scratch the other cat. So if you find a scratch on one of your cats, it doesn’t necessarily mean there was a fight.
Drawn - Fight
If you see claws exposed before or during the activity, your cats are likely fighting. Claws are their first line of defense, and they aren’t afraid to use them!
Dilated Pupils - Play or Fight
This is a tough one. Cats’ eyes dilated during play to focus on toys before they pounce, and they will do the same thing before they pounce on another cat during play. However, if you hear concerning vocalizations, the cat might be prepping to fight.
Constricted Pupils - Fight
Tiny pupils can indicate fear or aggression, and are often a precursor to an attack.
Flattened or Poofed - Fight
As I mentioned earlier, cats do this to try to avoid an altercation, but it indicates the cat doesn’t feel secure, since they feel the need to disguise their actual size.
Wrestle - Play
Most often, wrestling is give and take with both cats, and it’s commonly an aspect of play. When cats wrestle, both are engaged and having fun. Look at videos of kittens wrestling to get an idea of what this behavior looks like. It usually involves rolling around and nibbling.
Stalk - Fight
Cats that follow other cats or wait to ambush them (by doorways or the litter box), are typically doing so to establish control. This can lead to a fight, and it’s a good early indicator to distract the aggressor.
Nips - Play
Nips do not break the skin, and they can be part of play, or even a warning sign that one has had enough. Typically, cats will wrestle and exchange nips.
Bites - Fight
Bites that are breaking the skin or clearing causing a cat pain are another story. And if you see only one cat biting and the other looks like it’s trying to get away, that is cause for concern.
Forward - Play
Ears that are in the normal position typically indicate the cat is happy.
Backward and Flat - Fight
Cats position their ears backward when they are upset.
Taking Turns + Breaks - Play
Cats will take turns on who is the initiator when they are playing, and they often take short breaks and then play again.
Targeting + One Activity - Fight
When one cat seems to initiate contact and the other cat isn’t reciprocating, it could be a sign of fighting. Also, fighting cats will not take breaks – they will brawl until someone clearly wins.
Relax - Play
Calm kitties that show no tension are playing. Their tails may even gently roll on the ground.
Firm - Fight
A cat with a tight, firm body is bracing and ready to fight. Their tails often thump on the ground or can be straight up and poofed.
What to Do If Your Cats Fight
If you’re dealing with cat fights, try some of these recommendations:
- Do not break up the fight physically. You are at high risk of being injured.
- Make sure both cats are spayed or neutered. Raging hormones are a common culprit in cat fights.
- Play with your cats at least 20-30 minutes a day to drain excess energy.
- Try to distract staredowns and stalking by using toys like wands, jingling balls, and laser pointers (laser pointers should be replaced eventually with a physical toy that can be caught to avoid frustration). You need to get the cat to take their focus off the other cat and redirect them to something positive.
- Make sure to position food and litter boxes in areas with multiple exits so that if one cat is stalked by another, they can get away.
- Use a loud noise to disrupt a staredown or attempt to break up an actual fight. Clapping your hands, shaking a jar of coins, or even hissing loudly can be methods you try.
- Block the cats from seeing one another. You can use a blanket, a box, or anything else that will create a barrier.
- Consider reintroducing your cats. This involves keeping them separate, swapping belongings, swapping them, feeding them on opposite sides of the door, and then graduating to feeding and playing with them in the same room.
- Always reward your cats with treats and affection for being in the same space and not fighting.
- Be sure to provide vertical space, like shelves and towers, so the cats can get off the ground if necessary.
- Use food puzzles to help stimulate your cat’s brain.
- Consider using pheromone diffusers or calming collars.
Do your best to keep yourself, your family, and all pets safe in your home. Keep an eye out for any concerning behavior even when it seems calm in your home. Awareness will help you catch warning signs before a fight. And if your cats are rolling and wrestling and nibbling at each other, don’t worry – you just have two normal playful kitties.
Corrigan, Ryan. WikiHow Pets, How to Know If Cats Are Playing or Fighting.
International Cat Care, Understanding the Hunting Behavior of Pet Cats: An Introduction.
Rubenstein, Gale. A Cat Clinic, Fighting or Playing? How Can You Tell?.
Shaw, Hannah. Kitten Lady, Determining a Kitten’s Age.
Wilde, Layla Morgan. Cat Wisdom 101, Cats: Hardwired to Hunt in 6 Steps.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist