Bridget is a long-time cat owner, cat sitter, and cat lover with years of feline research and hands-on experience.
Are My Cats Playing or Fighting?
Cats are energetic and playful at heart, but their play surely does not look like that of humans! For cat owners who aren't used to seeing cats playing, it can look (and sound) terrifying to watch them go at it! But, there are clues to whether what we are witnessing is an actual brawl or not.
What to Look for During Cat Interactions
- Cats who are playing are typically silent, or quite quiet. There are a few exceptions to this rule (some cats are just more vocal and will meow or growl a bit, even when playing with toys.) But you should not hear any screaming (which sounds almost like a human baby crying) or hissing during play. A bit of meowing is one thing, but cats who are unhappy will usually be extremely noisy- most of us have heard a catfight outdoors at night, and the screams practically travel across entire neighborhoods!
- Cats who are playing typically have their ears forward and their nails are not out. Cats love to bop each other on the head and tumble across the room, but scratching is not part of the deal. Also, a cat who is playing is not hostile and its ears will be in the calm, forward position, instead of set back (which indicates fear or aggression).
- In a fearful or aggressive cat, you will notice piloerection, which is another word for a puffed-up tail. A cat with a tail like this is feeling fearful, overwhelmed or angry. This would be a sign that things are not going well.
- Cats who are fighting may bite so hard that they draw blood. You will see fur flying and tears in the animal's skin. When cats play, rather, they do bite, and it may look aggressive, but those bites do not cause harm to the other cat in any way and do not lead to injury. This goes for kicking as well- it should be playful and should not cause injury. If it does, separate the cats and re-introduce them. (See below for instructions on the process.)
- Cats who enjoy each others company may touch noses when walking by, they may groom each other, and they will more than likely spend time rolling around giving each other soft bites and bops on the head! Look for these little signs to find out if the cats are taking a liking to each other.
Introducing a New Kitten or Cat
One of the most common instances where pet owners can be confused about whether cats are playing or fighting is the introduction of a new cat or kitten to the home. It's an important event, which must be done carefully in order to make it safe and comfortable for both cats!
If the new cat is not introduced properly, the original cat may feel threatened, and this could lead to actual fights, and potential injury (which could even be life-threatening!)
Because of this, it is important to take things slowly!
- The most commonly given advice is to start out with the new feline in a room of its own. Wipe down each room and keep the doors closed to keep them separate.
- Then, provide each cat with the towel that was rubbed on the other cat so that they can get used to the scent of the other one.
- After doing this a few times over a day or two, try cracking the door open. If there is no major hissing, growling, or spitting, allow the cats to bat at each other and sniff. This will start to put them at ease with each other.
- After this has been done with no major reactions (usually over a period of another one to two days, sometimes more while they get used to each other), you can try a face-to-face meeting.
- Remember that at any time you may need to remove the cat who seems less dominant if the more dominant cat is drawing blood. If there is spitting, screaming, deep biting, or if fur is actually flying, start the process over again, taking things even more slowly.
If these introductions are done carefully and thoughtfully, most cats are able to live in harmony and will only play with each other, with no harm done.
A Note on Dominance
When cats are first introduced, they will need to figure out which cat is dominant. This may take some time, a few overly-involved wrestling matches and some displays of dominance (force-grooming the other cat, holding the other cat down, etc.) Again, the dominant cat should not be harming the other cat in any way if things are going well. While some of these displays may seem rough to us, the cats know exactly what they are doing!
This entire process typically takes anywhere from a day to over a month!
Read More From Pethelpful
Should I Give Up On My Cats?
Cats tend to be solitary animals, but they also can enjoy the company of another. Even if a cat doesn't particularly enjoy another, they are usually able to eventually find a way to avoid interaction if they have been introduced properly. Rather than causing harm, the cats will simply work out a way to pretend that the other feline doesn't exist, and it is quite rare that cats are so aggressive with each other that they must be separated permanently.
If the fighting continues and you are unable to find a solution, consult your vet to ensure that neither of your feline friends has an underlying medical condition causing their behavior. If not, the vet may be able to offer tips or to refer you to an animal behaviorist who can help. If you've tried everything and the quality of life has been diminished for them, it may be time to look at rehoming for one or constant separation in different parts of the home. Only you know what is best, but with dedication and hard work, most living situations involving more than one cat turn out well.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Bridget F
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on April 23, 2017:
We have six cats of our own, and we also foster kittens for a rescue group. We keep the kittens away from our cats until they reach at least two pounds, and even then, we keep a close eye on the interactions, as the youngest of our kitties is, as of 2017, 6 years old! :-O (Where has the time gone?!)
The most senior of the current group is about 13, and has become a bit grouchy in her dotage. She mostly stays to herself and sleeps, but when awake, she hisses at the others, even though they used to get along.
All the rest mostly get along, but one of them (a male) has taken exception to a semi-feral (female) we rescued, and bedevils her constantly, to the point she was getting UTIs from being scared to go to the litter box! We finally got that solved, but she still runs and hides from him, and spends most of her day up on a chair under the table. I feel so bad for her, but it is starting to ease up a trifle...after 2 years of this!
ALL of them are spayed/neutered, so that is not a factor.
But the foster kittens...I have to separate them, especially the boys, several times a play session for biting hard enough to make the other screech!
Ah, kids! LOL
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 23, 2017:
I have five indoor cats who all get along well. There is only one who is put off by the others and even she has her friends. Two of them in particular have such a solid relationship that they snuggle together and groom one another as if they were raised together. Both, however, were introduced to one another as adults. It's cute to watch them tumble around and chase one another around. I found that playing with a wand toy with both of them helped smooth the introduction period, getting them involved in something mutually fun and interesting. Ilike your towel suggestion.