Don’t Play Rough With Your Cat

Author: Chris O’Neil, Founder, Catology – Cat Behaviour Solutions


Today’s blog post is more of a plea to cat owners.  Many of my clients contact me because their cat is “attacking them”.  Often these attacks can draw blood and get infected.  The problem is, much of this behaviour has often been inadvertently conditioned/taught by owners. 

Human-directed aggression is a major cause of rehoming and euthanasia among cats.  There are a many different reasons for human-directed aggression, some of which the owner has no control over.  The type I’m going to speak about today is caused by misdirected play behaviour.  This type is definitely one that has usually been taught from a young age.

“Play” is sometimes the wrong word to use.  You see, cats in their natural environment will hunt between 20 and 30 times a day, with about 8 – 12 of those hunts being successful.  Naturally they are built for many short but intense physical activities.  For an indoor cat, this hunting is no longer “necessary”, but the physical activity requirement and the genetic hunting switch in their brain remains.  So, we should be “playing” with our cats to help deplete this prey drive. 

Most owners have experienced their cats’ “zoomies”, where the cat runs around the place like a madman with crazy eyes!  This is simply the cat depleting excess energy.

Cats who don’t get to deplete this excess energy can sometimes divert their behaviour onto another animal or human.  In a multi-cat household, you will often see play fighting, especially in younger cats.  Often it will look quite violent, but as long as there is no outward hissing and growling, and the cats take turns in being the aggressor, then usually it is ok.

When cats redirect this behaviour on to humans, it can become a real problem, especially if it’s causing injury.

Now this brings me to the point of this blog post. 

The cats that I deal with that attack their owners in “play”, are almost always the ones that have been “roughhoused” as a kitten, or the owner has used their hands (or other body parts) to play.  You know, when you get a small kitten they are cute little balls of fluff and it can be quite difficult not to roll them around and laugh and react when they attach themselves to your hand or forearm! 

The problem is… the kitten is learning that this is how they should play.  Even better, they are getting rewarded by the owner’s talking, laughing and continued hand movements.  Then the cat gets bigger, and the cat’s “attacks” are suddenly less cute and more dangerous.

Some clients like to play footsies under the covers with their cat when they go to bed.  This then conditions the cat that playtime is at your bedtime, and your feet are the toys.

Then one day the owner doesn’t feel like playing when they go to bed, but the cat still does!  So the owner goes to bed and the cat launches at their feet.  The owner yells, rewarding  the cat’s behaviour!

Then a cycle begins.

No matter what the initial reason, if a cat learns that humans body parts are toys, they will be conditioned to “attack” you when they want play. 

Over time, the behaviour can actually get stronger and more regular.  If every time the cat attacks, the owner yelps and struggles, the cat is simply getting more and more rewarded, thinking it’s part of the game.

Then all too often, the cat gets given up for adoption because it the risk of getting scratched and injured becomes too high.  I’ve seen cats rehomed multiple times (and finally euthanised) for the issue, all because they were taught to play that way as a kitten.

So, how do you play then?

Well firstly, never use your hands or other body parts to play. 

Secondly, make sure you do play with your cat, daily or more often.  A cat with a lot of pent-up energy is more likely to redirect that energy onto something inappropriate.

Thirdly, wand or fishing rod toys are your best bet.  This keeps the focus away from your body, and the “thing” on the end can act like prey.

HERE and HERE are some youtube videos from US cat behaviourist, Jackson Galaxy, on the subject of play.

So back to my original plea. If you are a proud owner of a new kitten, please play appropriately, so you don’t inadvertently train an “attacker”.  Once trained and the behaviour is embedded, without proper behaviour modification, the poor cat can become a “dangerous animal”, and becomes a risk to owners, likely resulting in rehoming or worse.