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How to stop cat play aggression

Tabby displaying cat play aggression by biting owners hand
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Given how cute our feline friends are, cat play aggression can come as a shock. One minute you're happily enjoying some time together, the next your cat is lashing out, scratching and biting. Sometimes, you're merely walking past your moggy and find that your legs are coming under attack! It feels as if you've become your cat's worst enemy.

It's less than ideal, especially given how much cats can hurt you physically. Their curved claws can cut deep into your skin and their narrow, sharp teeth can puncture and sink into your flesh. As well as drawing blood and invoking pain, such attacks can also cause infection because cats carry pathogens. Indeed bacteria – particularly from cats' mouths – can lead to terrible disease and illness in humans.

One such bacteria, Bartonella henselae, can cause cat-scratch fever which leads to exhaustion, a poor appetite, fever, headache and swollen and painful lymph nodes. It's also possible to develop cellulitis, or septicemia. Another bacteria, Clostridium tetani, causes a serious infection called tetanus. It's clear, then, that aggression is nothing less than a major problem.

But what exactly causes this behavior and, more importantly, how can you stop it? Let's scratch beneath the surface and find out!

Why is my cat so aggressive when he plays?

What is perhaps surprising is that, most of the time, your cat may be as good as gold. Your feline friend is likely to be pottering around your home, curiously exploring, asking for a top up of the best cat food, and seeking fresh places to sleep (such as that new cardboard box you've just emptied). There's no hint that they're being necessarily territorial or feeling threatened and they are, to all intents and purposes, happy.

The mayhem – the hissing, biting and clawing – is only happening when you play. But why is this? In some cases, it's simply because a cat is under-stimulated which is why you should always consider buying the best cat toys. Sometimes, a cat is merely acting naturally, with studies showing that cat play can be a way for felines to practice predatory instincts. In fact, play aggression could be a cat's way of learning some boundaries – by nature, a cat will test how far it can go with other cats to establish a hierarchy and your pet is likely doing the same with you.

It's why play aggression is more typical of cats under the age of two. They're undergoing a process of education which is why a cat's upbringing plays a big part. Cats that were weaned or removed from their littermates too early tend not to grow up understanding the difference between play and predatory behavior. What's more, how you interact with a kitten or young adult cat can also have a massive affect on play aggression. In many cases, cats simply don't know any better.

Should you play rough with cats?

With that in mind, it's important to know how to play with a cat. For starters, you should avoid using your hands, feet or other body parts as a toy because that could lead a feline to play-hunt with you. Instead, your hands should only ever be used to stroke, hold and gently pet your cat – and only at times when your moggy appears to be calm.

One thing's for sure, rough play can easily fool a cat into thinking that it's absolutely fine to bite or scratch at your flesh. And while a kitten's playful bite isn't much of an issue, if this kind of behavior continues into adulthood, then it suddenly becomes a painful problem. 

Rough play also changes the dynamic of your relationship with a cat. You may think it's a heap of fun to wrestle with a cat but felines don't like it, especially if it makes them feel vulnerable or causes them to be pinned down and trapped.

A moggy will go on the defensive in a situation like that and play times will end up as a free-for-all. Cats will also start to see all humans as a potential rough playmate which adds a whole layer of extra issues. Better to try one of these eight fun games to play with cats instead and keep playing gentle and calm.

Do cats grow out of play aggression?

Woman playing with cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Many cats will eventually learn that play aggression is wrong and undesirable. By adulthood they may well have learned how to hunt and fight (more so if there are other cats around either in your home or outside) and they'll have figured the necessary boundaries between play and reality.

Some, however, don't grow out of it. They've become excited by your hands and feet and they still don't understand that you don't want them to stop scratching or biting (which is why they will sometimes cling on tightly to you). How you've responded to that in the past will make a huge difference. If, as a kitten, you've laughed it off and indulged in such play, then you will find it more likely that play aggression will be ongoing.

How do you stop a cat from playing with aggression?

There are numerous measures you can take to prevent play aggression (and some things you should never do). The first is to keep playing – and you should read up on six reasons you should play with your cat right now, one of which is to socialize them to make them better behaved. 

Boredom will do nothing to prevent play aggression (quite the opposite), so also try our 10 tips to entertain your moggy to keep a cat's mind focussed on something other than your body!

Play involving toys is enriching and they help to tire cats, making them less likely to attack. If they are still proving to be aggressive, though, adapt your behavior to the situation. Don't shout at a cat and never physically punish – not only is that cruel but a cat may respond by being even more rough with you. It's better to relax (especially if a cat has a hold of you) before trying to distract your cat, preferably with a toy and then stopping the play. Calmly walk away.

Often you can spot the signs of potential play aggression before it starts and that's a good time to take action. Look for patterns of behavior – does your cat hide in a certain spot before pouncing, for instance, and can you prevent them accessing that location? Is a cat's tail flicking from side to side, are the pupils dilating and are their ears being pinned back? These are signs to walk away. 

Finally, be consistent. Train your cat how to behave as soon as you see any signs of poor behavior and stick with your ground rules. Get others in your household to do the same and you'll find playtimes are far more pleasurable in the long run.

David Crookes

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.