Play Aggression in Cats

Play aggression is an intense form of normal cat behavior that can be directed at people and other cats. It is usually associated with early weaning, a shift to predatory behavior, or rough play by the cat's owners.

Kittens experience stages of social play (3 to 12 weeks of age) and social fighting (14 weeks and older) that develop skills necessary for hunting. Play becomes well developed at 6 to 8 weeks of age and kittens can exhibit independent predatory behavior by 5 weeks of age. Play aggression may develop when the kitten's mother or siblings do not correct it when it hurts them.

Play aggressive cats crouch and hide, waiting for movement. They pounce, using teeth and claws, and quickly flee. It is important to abort this behavior by startling the cat with a loud noise or spray of water. Startling is very effective when it interrupts the inappropriate behavior.

Do not physically punish a cat with play aggression because this reinforces the behavior.

Put a bell on the cat's collar so you always know where the cat is. This eliminates surprise attacks.

Only play with the cat using cat toys, never with your hands. The cat must learn to distinguish your body parts from its toys. If the cat scratches you during play, startle the cat and stop the play. Cat toys should be checked frequently for wear and replaced if they are damaged.

Increase the cat's aerobic exercise. You can throw a cat toy for your cat to bat around the room or place a treat on top of a scratching post that will fall if your cat scratches energetically. You can also attach a toy to a string and pull it around the house for your cat to chase.

Getting another cat often reduces play aggression. The additional cat provides another outlet for play and often corrects the aggressive behavior within the feline social system.

If play aggression continues, banish the cat to another room.

Provide a scratching post covered with sandpaper to keep your cat's claws short.

Be sure to clean and disinfect cat scratches or bites and seek medical attention if the injury becomes infected.

Status-related Aggression in Cats

Cats have a social system in which some individuals rank higher than others. Occasionally, cats attempt to manipulate their owners in a manner called assertion, or status-related aggression. This aggression usually develops at social maturity (2 to 4 years of age).

Cats without status-related aggression sometimes dislike attention, reject petting, or consistently block their owner's path. They may rub against places where the person has been or rub (or even spray) the person they are trying to control. They do not become aggressive.

Cats that exhibit status-related aggression often solicit attention by jumping into their owner's lap and then bite if they are petted or shifted. Those with extreme status-related aggression may bat at the person to make them assume a position of the cat's choosing and then bite them if they move. Sometimes, they block pathways and stare or hiss at the person as they pass.

At times, these cats allow themselves to be petted, but at other times they bite and scratch. This occurs because the cat controls the situation and tolerates petting that it initiates. Status-related aggressive cats stiffen, twitch their tails, erect the fur down their back, put their ears back, dilate their pupils, and unsheathe their claws, growl, and bite.

The key to controlling status-related aggression is to prevent the cat from having control. Status-related aggressive cats may never be cuddly, but they can live harmoniously in the household.

Avoid situations in which the cat might react inappropriately.

Stand up and let the cat fall from your lap at the first sign of aggressive behavior. Do not pick the cat up or shove it. These are challenges, and the cat will bite.

Keep a horn, air canister, or water pistol with you to startle the cat at the first sign of aggression. Later, when the cat is calm, talk to it gently and give it a treat. Do not pet the cat or dangle body parts in front of it.

If the cat is calm in your lap, pet it once or twice. You, not the cat, must always terminate the attention and determine the amount of it. Stand up and let the cat fall from your lap before it is ready to terminate the attention.

Put a bell on the cat's collar so you know where the cat is at all times. Monitor its movements and do not let the cat surprise you.

Do not let the cat control your access to anything. Ask the cat to move and throw a toy for the cat to chase. If the cat does not move, use a broom to move it gently. Do not use your hand.

Train the cat to defer to you in exchange for small food rewards. Decide what you want the cat to do (e.g., lie down, reach up and touch your hand with its paw). Guide the cat into the position you desire using a command (e.g., "down" or "shake") and give the cat the treat as soon as it does the behavior. Practice these deference exercises frequently. If the cat exhibits aggressive behavior, startle it and stop the training. Wait until the cat is calm and comes to you for attention before interacting again.

Be sure to clean and disinfect cat scratches or bites and seek medical attention if the injury becomes infected.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 30 Nov 2001

Last Modified: 15 Sep 2015