How to tell if your cats are playing or fighting, and if it’s a problem

Los gatos they have their own language to express what they feel or want, but when they interact with each other, their human friends may have a hard time telling play from fighting, and may not be able to detect when a feline’s gestures might indicate that what they are started out as a diversion is about to turn into a cat brawl.

If you already have a cat and you intend to bring another one home, you may be worried that they won’t accept each other, or even get into a fight, but a new study has identified a series of characteristic signs that can help you to know if your attitude is playful or aggressive and, in this case, when is it a problem and it is necessary to separate them as soon as possible. The study has been carried out by researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia, and has been published in Scientific Reports.

First, the researchers searched YouTube for videos featuring cats playing, cats fighting, or a combination of both, and also asked Facebook users to send them videos of their cats in all of the above attitudes, but without them provoking their pets to to have that kind of behavior.

Feline gestures that indicate whether its intention is playful or aggressive

Among all of them, they selected the 105 videos that seemed most suitable for carrying out their analysis. They divided cat behavior into six categories:

  • inactive. When they were crouching, sitting or standing.
  • Freestyle wrestling, which includes biting, clawing, hugging or “non-injurious” kicking.
  • Chasing, with one cat chasing the other as if it were its prey, or one of the cats running away from its pursuer.
  • Other interactions such as grooming each other, turning on their backs, sniffing, stalking, pounce…
  • Non-interactive activities such as grooming, playing alone with a toy, licking…
  • Vocalizations (grunts, hisses, snorts, or meows).

The analysis of these behaviors gave as a result three distinctive types of interactions between cats: playful, “agonistic” and an intermediate category in which behaviors from the other two categories are mixed, usually a playful fight that is combined with vocalizations such as growling and hissing, or a cat chasing another cat that has fled. 56.2% of the cats participated in playful interactions, compared to 28.6% who only had clearly antagonistic interactions. The other 15.2% had a mixed behavior.

“Our findings provide valuable practical evidence that can be used to help owners detect signs of intercat tension in its early stages.”

The researchers found that a high percentage of kittens engaged in wrestling behavior, which appears to be a very common form of play among kittens, while antagonistic adult cats do not engage in it because they tend to avoid direct contact. However, many of the adult cats that got along played like this. Something similar occurred with chasing behavior, which was considered antagonistic when it included vocalizations or hostile gestures such as having the ears back.

Behavior identified as the intermediate category was more associated with playful cats than with antagonistic ones, and the researchers suggest that it is more likely to indicate a temporary disagreement between the cats than a break in their relationships. For example, it may happen that they start to play and one of them does not want to continue and hisses, hits the other with his paws, or runs away to let him know.

The authors of the study have explained that if, despite the fact that they have occasional fights, they show mutual affection, such as sleeping together, grooming themselves and greeting each other with affection, it means that the relationship is good and they consider themselves part of the same group. “Our findings provide valuable practical evidence that can be used to help owners detect signs of inter-cat stress in its early stages,” which in turn could help “prevent major problems that could lead to relinquishing…of one or both cats”, they conclude.


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