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Human Directed Play Aggression

 Important reminders about the behavior:

• Any behavior change could be an early sign of a medical problem. In all cases of aggression, a veterinary checkup is recommended to ensure that pain or illness is not a motivating factor.

• Aggression has many causes that must be considered and ruled out. These include fear, anxiety, frustration, learned inappropriate play, tense relationships with cats or other animals in the home, illness, and pain. 

• Play in cats is closely linked to normal and necessary instinctive behaviors related to hunting and predation that involve stalking, chasing, ambushing, pouncing, grabbing, kicking, and biting. Movement and sound are common triggers for these predatory behaviors. 

• Cats need to hunt! If your cat is not provided with a natural outlet to engage in predatory behavior and you never play predatory type games with her either, she may well “invent” her own games, and these may involve stalking, chasing and grabbing you. Regular, satisfying, interactive play is essential to resolving this problem.

Management and safety information:

Watch the cat for early signs of arousal and agitation:

o Tail twitching or lashing.

o Head lowered and body crouched and low to the ground.

o Eyes wide and fixed on the “prey” target, pupils may or may not be dilated.

o Ears and whiskers forward.

o Skin on the back twitching or rippling.

• At the first sign of any of the above and BEFORE the cat pounces, redirect her with a favorite toy and give her space.

• Don’t try to touch or pet a cat who is already aroused. Anything that moves near the cat is likely to be grabbed or bitten.

• Don’t overdo physical attention—while petting can start out calm, it can end up “nippy” as the cat gets more excited. To counter this, pick up a toy before petting the cat. As soon as she begins to get mouthy or show signs of arousal, introduce the toy. Play with her with the toy, if you can do it without getting bitten. If not, just calmly move away and leave her with the toy.

• Place large items in places where the cat tends to sit and wait to ambush people to block her access. Where this isn’t possible, keep a container of small toys or crumpled up paper balls nearby that can be tossed to move the cat out of position and allow the person (or other pet) to safely pass by.

• Avoid rough play, and never use your hands or feet as toys during play.

• If your cat bites or grabs you, remain calm, stop all play, and calmly withdraw from the cat. Never yell at, squirt with water, chase, hit, scruff, or use other aggressive behaviors toward the cat. Also avoid pulling or jerking away, screaming, or squealing. These techniques either reinforce the cat’s behavior by creating drama and turning the interaction into a game, or escalate the cat’s arousal and fear, which can increase aggression and the risk of potential injury to you. Instead:

1. Freeze and make the targeted body part go limp (like dead prey). Cats respond to movement, and by freezing and going limp, you are no longer enticing to the cat.

2. Calmly say, “Ouch.” (No need to yell—cats have excellent hearing.) Cats squeak at each other to communicate when play becomes too rough. It’s a signal many cats understand and respond to by releasing their grip or bite. If the cat doesn’t release right away, remain calm and wait. Remember that the more you move, the more likely you are to be scratched or bitten. The moment the cat releases her bite or grip, praise her in a soft, happy voice, “Good cat/girl/boy/kitty.”

3. Calmly walk away from the cat. This communicates to her that play ends and you leave when she’s too rough. When she returns to a calm state (i.e. she is not exhibiting any of the signs of arousal or agitation listed above), you can once again engage her in play with an appropriate toy.

Behavior modification skills:

• Determine your cat’s preferred play styles and “prey” preferences by offering her a variety of different types of toys and hunting games and observing which ones she engages with most readily and for longer periods of time. For example, one cat might like to bat around and chase small bouncy balls, while another might prefer to grab, bite, and kick large stuffed toys. Also pay attention to what type of movement is most enticing to the cat; for instance, she might be more interested in a ribbon that is pulled under a carpet than a ribbon that is pulled along the ground. For more tips and techniques on playing with cats, see How Cats Play, BARKS from the Guild, September 2017, pp. 50-51

• Provide the cat with appropriate outlets for her energy and hunting needs daily:

o Toys for solo play that resemble prey items (rodents, birds, bugs/insects, and snakes), move or make noise, contain catnip or silver vine, and can be batted, tossed, grabbed, and bitten or kicked. Maintain novelty by rotating toys so the cat receives at least three “new” toys daily.

o Interactive play with wand- or fishing pole-type toys twice daily, preferably morning and evening. Keep the sessions brief, about 10- to 15-minutes long, and take short breaks between bursts of play if the cat gets overly excited and starts biting or clawing at your hands.

o Food puzzles to promote natural foraging and hunting behaviors. Refer to the Food Puzzles for Cats website for information on how to get started: 

• Cue the beginning of play sessions with a word or phrase, such as “Let’s play.” Instead of ending play sessions abruptly, wind them down over about 5 minutes so the cat has a chance to calm down, then end the sessions with a cue word or phrase, like, “All done,” and a few treats or a small meal so the cat understands when the play session is over.

• Reinforce polite requests for play (a gentle paw touch, meow, look, or approach) with play and positive attention. Reinforcing desirable behaviors is easier than correcting unwanted behaviors.

• Provide additional enrichment that considers the cat’s senses and her basic needs:

o Resting and hiding areas, including vertical space (e.g., tall perches, cat shelving, tunnels, cardboard boxes).

o Novel scents and textures (e.g., catnip, silver vine, cat grass, Feliway, tissue paper).

o Positive, predictable social contact with preferred associates (people, cats, dogs, or others).

o Training basic behaviors and tricks (see Clicker Training for Cats, BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp.16-23: . 

Specific tools:

• Toys for solo and interactive play.

• Food puzzles.

• High-value treats.

• Items that provide opportunities for resting and hiding.

• Items for scent enrichment.


• Approximately 2-4 weeks. (Note: this will vary for each individual cat and may take more – or less time – than this, which is intended as a guideline only).

• Maintenance: it is important to keep up your behavior modification protocols to establish and maintain desired behaviors long-term.

Every cat is an individual, and behavior is complex. If you need help training your cat, seek out a qualified cat behavior professional. click here 

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