Aggression, Biting, and Rough Play in Cats
All kittens and young cats need to play. Play is normal behavior that provides young animals with opportunities to develop their physical coordination and problem-solving skills. It also gives them a chance to hone their social skills with members of their own species. It's very common for kittens and young cats to engage in rough, active play because all feline play consists of mock aggression. Cats stalk, chase, pounce, swat, kick, scratch and bite each other-all in good fun. However, people often misinterpret this kind of behavior as aggression when it's directed toward them.
Cats display two different types of play behavior: solitary play and social play. They direct solitary play toward objects, like toys, skeins of yarn, paper bags, boxes and rolled-up paper. Social play is directed toward fellow cats, people or other animals. Unfortunately, problems can sometimes arise when feline play is directed toward people. Despite the playful intentions of a cat, he can cause injury to his human playmates. Cat scratches and bites are painful and can easily become infected.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Cats occasionally display aggression toward people. True aggression is most likely to occur in cats who are easily frightened or when they react to the sight, sound or scent of another cat outdoors. If you live with a cat who's under one year of age and you're his only playmate, it's likely that he's playing roughly with you rather than actually behaving aggressively. However, it's sometimes difficult to determine the difference between feline play and real aggression. It might help to observe your cat's body language. Two behaviors that cats frequently display when playing are the “play face,” where a cat holds his mouth half open, and the sideways pounce or hop, which a cat often does with his back arched. Cats also tend to play quietly. During aggressive encounters, however, they often growl, hiss and spit.
How to Reduce Your Cat's Rough Play Behavior
What NOT to Do
If your cat insists on directing his play at you, despite your best efforts to encourage him to play with toys, you can interrupt his rough play behavior by squirting him with water from a spray bottle. A short blast of compressed air (no sound) from a can might also be an effective deterrent. You'll need to carry your water bottle or air canister with you at all times when your cat is likely to ambush you so that you can deliver the spray the instant he starts to run at you. If your cat pounces on you and you don't have your water bottle or air canister handy, try clapping your hands loudly to startle him. As soon as he stops, throw a toy away from you to direct his play behavior toward the toy. Small wads of paper kept in your pocket or in likely ambush places around the house often work well as substitute toys.
It may take a bit of time and effort, but if you're consistent and patient, you can teach your cat to direct his playful energy toward appropriate toys instead of you. If you need help, don't hesitate to contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for assistance. Please see our article,Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these qualified experts in your area.
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