Play Aggression in Cats

Aggression is an essential part of your cats predatory nature. Behaviors like stalking, chasing, leaping, pouncing, swatting, and biting are all common displays of aggression, and are always a major component of any play session. Most of the time this is not a problem and can be entertaining as well as fun for both you and your cat. However, if your cat becomes play aggressive, you or other animals maybe injured making playtime with your cat a trial rather than a pleasure.

This problem is the number-one most common form of aggression that cats display towards humans. It happens when a bored, under- exercised, or lonely cat becomes overstimulated during play and typical play-time mock aggression becomes the real deal.

Normal Play

Cats play in two ways: social (or interactive) play, which is directed towards other cats and humans and solitary play, which is directed towards objects like balled up paper, cat toys, and paper bags. Play aggression is often present in either of these two modes of play, but it only becomes an issue when people or other animals are involved.

Causes of Play Aggression

Play aggression happens when your cat has an excess of unused energy, usually from a lack of exercise and owner interaction, and as a result becomes too rambunctious and vigorous during a play session.

Because all cat play is based around the predatory feline nature, an overstimulated cat releases the excess through normal predatory play. Which means that instead of swatting at you with claws sheathed, she extends them or instead of mouthing your hand, she gives it a sharp bite. The cat is play-aggressive because shes not getting enough stimulating, interactive play time which may in turn make her owner want to play even less with her. This results in more pent up energy and leads to more aggression.

What to Look for

You can often tell when the play time is leading towards aggression by watching your cats body language and expressions. Normal, non-aggressive feline play behavior includes the play face, with a half-open mouth and heavily lidded eyes, the sideways hop (often with arched back) and a lightly switching tail (its going from side to side, but slowly and gently.)

When your cat is getting too aggressive, her body language will change quite a bit. Her ears might go back, while her tail starts lashing violently from side to side, and her pupils will enlarge. Her movements will also become significantly more vigorous and energetic and there might be increased speed and force to her playing.

How to Stop it

If you think your cats getting overexcited, it is recommended you stand up and walk away before she actually starts to display aggression. You can resume play as soon as shes calmed down a bit. The idea is to reset before she has the chance to vent her aggressive energy on you.
If its too late for this and shes already started to bite or scratch at you, do not reward her with attention, not even negative attention. Simply stand up and walk away, leaving the room, if necessary.

Your cat will most likely try to initiate play with you again. When she does, do not respond because play initiation is dominant behavior, and if you fall victim to her demands, it will teach her that demanding attention results in her getting what she wants.
If shes particularly persistent, or the aggression is becoming hard to deal with, you can isolate her in a room by herself until shes calm (which can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes.)

Dos and Don’ts

  • Remember, your cat is not really trying to attack you and her intentions are purely playful. She just has to learn that aggressive behavior will not result in a rewarding play session for her. In order for her to learn this, you need to be consistent with your reactions by not rewarding her with attention when she is aggressive. She will eventually learn to only play in a more laid back way.
  • Do not use physical punishment to correct play aggression. There are two reasons for this: one, if you actually hurt your cat, this will result in increased aggression on her behalf; and two, even if it doesn’t hurt, its still going to scare her, which results in owner-avoidance and a general deterioration of your relationship.
  • Since play aggression is almost always due to boredom and an excess of energy, the best thing you can do is to provide lots of opportunities for stimulating interactive play with your cat. Try to encourage aerobic exercise, like her running around, chasing things, climbing, pouncing, and so on.
  • Make sure the play is on your terms. Do not allow your cat to initiate play because this is habit-forming, and teaches her that you can be manipulated.
  • If you find it difficult to make the time to play with your cat, scheduling in a couple of ten-minute play sessions each day might help. Paying attention to your cats circadian rhythms (watching to see when shes the most active) is a good idea as well. Schedule play time when shes wide-awake and raring to go. She will get more out of it.

Positive Types of Play

Cats are predators. Their play is instinctively based around behaviors that will increase their ability to hunt. Because of this, cats prefer toys that resemble prey that is, small, mobile objects that move.

Try things like ping-pong balls, crumpled paper, cardboard boxes, paper bags, dangling ropes affixed to the ceiling or doorways, scratching posts, and balls of yarn for solitary play and fake mice, cat dancers (like a mobile which you dangle and jerk around for your cat to play with), wands, and anything that rolls which you can toss for her for interactive play.

If she likes to climb and explore, you can also try creating an obstacle course for her to enjoy or consider a cat tree. Set up some branches, pillars, shelves, perches, and climbing ramps for her to climb around on. Most cats enjoy being up high anyway, so this should make any cat happy. You can also try hiding some small, tasty treats in various places to encourage her to get climbing.


Aggression can be a dangerous behavior problem that takes patience and time to eliminate. Many techniques can back fire if not applied correctly causing physical or mental harm to your and your cat. If you are struggling to help your cat, consider a product like Jackson Galaxy’s Peacemaker Formula or a book to explain further techniques, such as Starting from Scratch.

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