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Are My Cats Playing or Fighting?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023


An orange tabby cat boops noses with a long-haired brown tabby cat.

In multi-cat households, it can be hard to tell the difference between feline play vs. fighting. In fact, your cats might be displaying a combination of play and fighting behaviors, making it all the more difficult to distinguish one from the other.


Though it can be hard to learn the difference, it’s worth it to pay closer attention. Studies have correlated the stress of living in high-conflict, multi-cat households with an increased risk of problem behaviors and health problems. So, let’s talk about the factors – like body language and vocalizations – to consider when deciding whether or not you should break up a feline play session.


Feline Body Language

What do you think is your most useful tool when deciding if play has gone too far? A firm understanding of cat body language can help you to address a variety of feline behavioral struggles, and this one is no different.


There are lots of behaviors that could be considered both play and fighting. For instance, cats often jump on and chase each other, letting out the occasional hiss, in both aggressive and playful encounters. But there are subtle cues that you can learn to look for to help tip the scales in one direction or the other.


Playful Cats

Playful cats have a few tell-tale behaviors to be on the lookout for. These include:

  • Taking turns pouncing on each other

  • Taking turns being chased

  • Taking frequent rest breaks

  • Relaxed ears that are pointing forward

  • Loose bodies

  • Neutral tails

Check out this video to see an example of two kitty friends, Penny and Ruthie, play fighting.


Fighting Felines

Fighting cats will display their own set of behaviors. You should break up a play session if:

  • One cat is spending a disproportionate amount of time on top of the other

  • One cat is always chasing the other

  • One cat is ignoring the other's attempts to take breaks or get away

  • One or both cats have flattened ears

  • One or both cats have rigid bodies, are leaning away, or are baring their teeth

  • One or both cats have puffed-up fur, swishing tails, or claws out

For some examples of what this dynamic looks like in action, check out this video of Ruthie and Nakia.




Vocalizations

If you’re not in the room to witness your cats’ body language, you can still use your ears. Cats who are playing might give the occasional hiss or mild vocalization, but they aren’t usually overly loud. Cats who are fighting will often make loud howling or yowling noises, and they might hiss or growl excessively.


Other Factors to Consider

If you still feel on the fence after analyzing your cats’ body language and vocalizations, it can help to assess how your cats act when they’re not playing and/or fighting.


How do your cats act immediately after a play session?

Cats who are playing will usually resume a sense of normalcy in the immediate aftermath of a play session. They’ll have relaxed body postures, with no indicators of tension.


On the other hand, cats who are fighting will often carry their tension into the aftermath of a disagreement. One cat might run away and hide, or they might be standoffish with each other, displaying tense body language and vocalizations.


How do your cats act in the day-to-day hustle and bustle?

Pay special attention to how your cats act when they haven't been playing or fighting. This can be a great barometer of the temperature in your household.


Signs that your cats are besties

  • Allogrooming

  • Cuddling

  • Relaxed body language

  • Spending time relaxing near each other

Signs that your cats are beefing

  • Avoiding each other

  • Growling when near each other

  • Hard staring

  • One cat stalking the other

  • Avoiding physical contact

  • Hiding

  • Litter box issues

  • Destructiveness

  • Aggression toward people in the home

How old are your cats?

Another important factor to consider is age. A lot of the time, kittens will play-fight to practice hunting and to learn how to relate to other cats. This is part of the reason why many experts recommend adopting two kittens instead of just one – by playing with each other, kittens learn when to inhibit their bites and scratches.


If you’ve adopted two kittens who tend to get into playful scuffles, you might notice some alarming noises as they test each others’ boundaries. Don’t worry too much unless they injure each other or you notice that one kitten seems super uncomfortable. To see a real-life example of rough-and-tumble kitten fun, check out Jackson Galaxy’s video, where he gives some more helpful advice!




Your Cats Won't Stop Fighting... Now What?

If you’ve noticed some of the signs of feline fighting in your cats’ interactions, you’re probably wondering what to do. We’ve got some tips for turning the tide of your cats’ interactions.


Environmental Interventions

The first thing you should ask yourself is how your cats’ environment might be contributing to their tension. When it comes to cat fights, territorialism is a common culprit. It might be a good idea to rethink how to put your space to work for your cats.


Essentials for a cat-friendly home

  • Plenty of window perches, cat trees, scratching posts, and cat condos in the rooms that your cats frequent

  • One litter box per cat, plus one extra to limit territorialism over resources

  • Pheromone plug-ins to provide calming signals and promote feelings of safety

To learn more about setting up a cat-friendly home, check out our blog about the five essential cat parenting items to have in your home.


Enrichment

Sometimes, an excess of feline fighting can be caused by an excess of boredom. Without proper enrichment, many cats become bored, stressed, and anxious, which can lead to increased aggression.


3 ways to use enrichment to reduce fighting

  • Make sure your cats have frequent access to toys, scratching posts, and high-value treats

  • Implement clicker training to provide increased mental enrichment

  • Use interactive toys to guide play sessions and to break up fights if things get too heated

Reintroducing Your Cats

If your cats don’t respond well to the interventions listed above, they might need a complete reboot to change the tone of their relationship. A reintroduction can be a helpful tool to facilitate this, especially if you didn’t take your time introducing your cats to begin with. Check out or blog to learn our five-step formula for reintroducing cats – the right way.


If You Need a Little Help...

When dealing with such a complicated struggle, there’s no shame in asking for a helping hand. Jessica Bartlett, founder of Cat Lovers’ Academy, has made it her mission to make sure cat parents don’t have to feel alone.


Jessica is a UW-Certified Animal Behaviorist with a certification in advanced feline training. She offers virtual behavior consultation services that you can access from anywhere, providing you with hands-on support from the comfort of your home. Check out Cat Lovers’ Academy to learn more about Jessica, meet her kitty family, take a look at her free purr-fessional resources, and access her cat behavior consulting services.


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