When dealing with aggression between two cats that appear to be playing, it is important to understand that play behavior is natural, especially in kittens. Play is an incredibly important part of cat development. It keeps them healthy and helps them learn good social behavior. Playtime is great for burning off a kitten's seemingly endless energy. In adult cats, playtime eases stress, improves health, and strengthens the bond between cats.
The term "play aggression" can be deceiving, as this type of aggression can sometimes be extremely intense, especially if your cat has started to target certain cats in the household. Play aggression in cats involves uninhibited biting, clawing, stalking, and attacking other cats. In most cases, this behavior peaks in the morning and evenings, which are the natural hunting times for a wild cat.
Play can lead to overstimulation and escalate to aggression. It can also lead to fear aggression or pain-induced aggression. This occurs when one cat is no longer enjoying the interaction and responds with aggressive behavior. Play-aggressive cats are usually young and very active. These cats tend to be very high-energy cats with a high demand for entertainment. They will usually find just about anything to play with and are very rough and intense in their play. The most common form of play aggression is seen when a younger cat is introduced to a household with an older cat. Older cats generally do not have the energy or the inclination to match the play style of a younger cat.
To avoid aggression between household cats, steer your cat's playful behavior towards interactive toys. However, if your cat is still attacking the other cat, intercept the behavior or separate the cats during high play times. This is especially important if the other cat is showing signs of stress or fear. If you can anticipate the attack (you may see dilated pupils, a swishing tail, or other "pre-pounce" behaviors, like hiding or crouching), throw a toy just before the cat is about to attack. This redirects the attack towards the toy, and away from the other cat. Play-aggressive cats generally need a lot of room to romp and play. Increase territory and create more vertical space in your home with perches and cat trees. Make sure adequate enrichment is available at all times.
Never punish a cat for aggressive behavior toward another cat. Supervise their interactions closely to ensure positive outcomes.
This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.