Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Does My Cat Play Rough?

By Langley Cornwell

Our cat is a great hunter as well as an affectionate family man. As an avid animal lover, it’s hard to appreciate it when he proudly presents a wounded or dead “gift” to me and then waits expectantly for my approval. I do my best, and also make sure that he has a loud ringing bell on his collar – just to level the playing field.

Many times when we are lounging on the sofa and our sweet cat is resting on my lap, I’ll mindlessly start stroking between his ears. Sometimes he purrs so loudly and contently that I can’t hear the television. We are both enjoying relaxation time. Then, without warning he’ll suddenly swat at me or quickly twist and nip at my hand. I always know he doesn’t mean to hurt me but I’m still perplexed by his actions. I mean, if we are both completely kicked back, why would he want to change the mood so abruptly?

Apparently there is a direct correlation between high prey instincts and rough play. Cats that have a very high play-prey instinct can get excited quickly and will sometimes gently attack your hands, fingers, feet, legs, etc.

Kittens and adolescent cats often engage in energetic, rough play; feline play consists of mock aggression which helps young cats hone their physical coordination and their social skills. Cats have a good time stalking, chasing, scratching, pouncing and biting one another.

As I suspected, when cats with a high play-prey instinct get overexcited during petting time and start to nibble at your fingers and hands, the cat is not being aggressive. In fact, some people refer to these nibbles and nips as love bites.

Just like when your cat presents you with the spoils of his hunting and you pretend not to mind, this rough yet affectionate demonstration from your cat should not be corrected because it will confuse him.

If you’re not supposed to correct him, what are you supposed to do? Because even if these rough outbursts are considered love bites by the cat, they are not all that enjoyable for the human involved. And if the cat thinks he is showing affection, how does the human avoid the situation without completely confusing the cat?

Experts offer several suggestions:

If your cat becomes over-stimulated during play, abruptly stop all interaction with him.

Simply stop petting him and walk away. Alternatively, if your cat aggressively begins to nip at your hands as you pet him, give him a toy to chew on. This will teach your cat what is okay to chew on and what is not.

If your cat is the type that hides under the sofa and grabs at your feet when you sit down or ambushes your ankles or legs as you walk by, try to have plenty of toys on hand and toss one near him to redirect his attention. Your goal is to get the cat to focus on chasing the toys instead of your legs and feet.

Make sure not to initiate rough play with your cat. Never turn peaceful bonding into a lighthearted wrestling match.

It’s also important to offer praise and tasty rewards such as FELIDAE TidNips cat treats for good behavior.

I’m curious, is your cat always docile or does he or she give you the occasional love bite? If you sometimes get ambushed, how do you avoid rough play?

Top photo by Pat Pilon
Bottom photo by Ewen Roberts

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. I think cats secretly get great joy over making you scream when they ambush you as you walk by. It's kind of like kids tying to "scare" their parents and when we play along, eveyone has a good laugh. Let your cat have his fun.

  2. Good post, Langley. I'm always astounded by folks who actually initiate rough play with their cats.

  3. Diana, you may be right about that. Our cat, a Maine Coon mix, is playful and mischievous so he's probably getting a big kick out of it!

  4. PS - that second picture is hilarious!


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