How to Tell if Cats Are Playing or Fighting | Friends or Foes?
It can sometimes be challenging to determine if two cats are playing roughly (have a friendly relationship) or attacking each other (have a hostile relationship). To further complicate the situation, some cats have an intermediate relationship that involves both friendly and hostile interactions.
In this article on how to tell if cats are playing or fighting, topics covered include:
- Signs that suggest your cats are playing and have a friendly (affiliative) relationship
- Signs that suggest your cats are fighting and have a hostile (agonistic) relationship
- Signs that indicate your cats have an intermediate relationship, where they play and fight
- Video footage of cats either playing or fighting (you decide, then click to reveal the answer)
- A playing vs. fighting quick reference comparison table
- Why cats play fight and if you should stop them
- What causes cats to aggressively fight and how to stop them
How to Tell if Cats Are Playing
If two cats are engaging in friendly play fighting, signs you may notice include the following:
- Vocalizing. There is no or little vocalizing during play, mainly consisting of short meow or chirp sounds. One or two small hisses or growls could still indicate play, especially if one cat is getting too rough.
- Initiating. Cats generally take turns initiating play, usually by stalking, crouching, and pouncing toward their playmate.
- Ears and tail. A playing cat's ears may point forward or backward, and their tail may be smooth or slightly puffed up.
- Physical contact. Cats wrestle a lot during play, with movements such as tackling, grabbing with their forelimbs, kicking with their hindlimbs, and biting each other, especially on the neck. They usually swap who is lying on their back and who is on top, regularly reversing roles. Movements tend to be slower and inhibited (not using their full force) to restrain from hurting one another, with regular brief pauses to assess if each cat wants to continue.
- Swiping. Cats will take turns batting, patting, and swiping at one another with their claws retracted to avoid causing injury.
- Biting. Bites are inhibited (they don't use their full force) to avoid breaking the skin and causing injury.
- Chasing. When chasing, the intention is not to drive the other cat away but to continue playing, and they should take turns equally and swap roles rather than one cat always chasing the other.
- Distracting. Cats can usually be easily distracted by a noise or another activity in the room during play.
- Injuries. It is rare for cats to cause an injury, such as bite wounds, scratch marks, or bleeding during playfighting.
- Afterward. Following a play fight, both cats typically want to remain close and may sit together, groom each other, or rest next to each other.
Do Your Cats Have an Overall Friendly (Affiliative) Relationship?
To help you tell if your cats are likely playfighting and have an overall friendly relationship, it's essential to observe how they interact on a daily basis. Even an occasional dispute may not be a cause for concern if the majority of the time they engage in positive behaviors.
- Grooming each other without it escalating into a dispute or a fight.
- Rubbing their chin, cheeks, or body on each other.
- Sleeping in close contact with their bodies touching because they choose to and not due to limited space or resources.
- Sharing resources and space without always trying to avoid each other.
- Greeting each other with ears and tail up, sometimes with a chirp, and will touch each other's noses in a relaxed manner.
- Social rolling in front of each other, when they turn onto their back and expose their belly.
How to Tell if Cats Are Fighting
If two cats are fighting and being actively aggressive or attacking each other, signs you may notice include the following:
- Vocalizing. One of the most reliable ways to tell if cats are aggressively fighting is the amount of vocalization. During a fight, you typically hear frequent and prolonged hissing, shrieking, yowling, and screaming leading up to the fight, during, and after.
- Initiating. Rather than both cats taking turns to start an interaction, usually, it is one cat consistently pursuing the other.
- Ears and tail. A fighting cat typically has their ears pointing backward and flat, and their tail is completely puffed up.
- Physical contact. Often one cat will lunge toward the other after an intense period of staring and yowling at each other with tense body postures. When cats engage in combat, movements are quick, frantic, and uninhibited (using their full force) as they don't hold back on attacking and hurting each other. Often, hair will fly in the air as they grab, kick, bite, and scratch one another.
- Swiping. Claws are extended and swipes at each other are uninhibited (they intend to inflict damage).
- Biting. While biting, cats intend to hurt one another and will not hold back. Frequently their teeth break the skin.
- Chasing. Rather than a back-and-forth of playful chasing during friendly interactions, one cat is usually the chaser and harasses the other. During an attack, chasing is used as a means of escape, with one cat fleeing and the other cat driving them away.
- Distracting. During an aggressive fight, both cats are highly aroused and focused on each other, so it is difficult to distract them with a noise, and they may not notice other activities around them.
- Injuries. Scratches, bite wounds, and fur loss are common during an aggressive fight.
- Afterward. Cats will typically remain highly aroused, and it may take some time to relax again. After a fight, they are unlikely to stay in the same vicinity as each other.
Do Your Cats Have an Overall Hostile (Agonistic) Relationship?
To help you tell if your cats are aggressively fighting, it's helpful to observe how they interact on a daily basis. Recognizing underlying tension can indicate an overall poor relationship, and even if physical fights don't break out, your cats may simply be tolerating each other rather than getting along.
- When they are near each other, their tails swish, pupils dilate, ears point backward, and they may stare at each other, or one cat may look away to avoid eye contact.
- Keeping a distance, such as taking turns using a resource or space, resting in different rooms, or leaving the room when the other cat enters.
- Cats may lay near each other if they want the same resting area, such as a window perch, near the fireplace, or their owner's lap, but not touching.
- Blocking access to a resource or area, such as sitting next to the litter box, a doorway, or in front of the stairs.
- Forcing one cat to move from where they were resting or eating.
- One cat may need to sneak around to access the food.
- One cat may push interactions more than the other.
- They don't try to avoid each other, but neither do they actively seek each other out (suggests they tolerate each other and have a fairly neutral relationship)
Cats may show signs of play fighting but occasionally with a more aggressive undertone. These interactions are typically characterized by an increase in vocalization, one-sided chasing, as well as only one cat patting and swatting the other.1 Situations in which an intermediate interaction may occur include when one cat:
- Initiates play, but it is not reciprocated
- Wants to end a play session while the other wants to continue
- Wants a resource, such as a resting area, which the other doesn't want to give up
A slightly hostile interaction could indicate a short-term dispute or mild underlying tension rather than a complete breakdown in their relationship. However, the way the cats interact needs to be considered to determine if, on the whole, they show signs of getting along or signs of conflict. If you are unsure if your cats are fighting or playing, it's helpful to consult a veterinary behaviorist who can assess your specific situation and provide further guidance.
Videos: Is This Play or Fighting Behavior?
Watch the videos below and determine if you think the cats are playing or fighting. Click to reveal the answer and see if you are right.
Comparison Table: Playing vs. Fighting Signs
Why Do Cats Play Fight?
It's common for kittens and younger cats to playfight. Once cats reach 2-3 years old, they may be less inclined, however, siblings that have been together since kittenhood often maintain social play interactions. There are a variety of possible reasons that cats playfight, including:
- To develop hunting and fighting skills in a safe space, both to attack and defend themselves
- For social bonding and to learn appropriate social interactions
- For fun and enjoyment
Should I Let My Cats Play Fight?
It is not recommended to stop cats from play fighting if it's a healthy and social interaction. Telling them off can create confusion and frustration. Therefore, allow your cats to play and only intervene if it escalates into an aggressive fight.
Why Do Cats Aggressively Fight?
- A new cat was introduced to the home and is viewed as a stranger in their territory.
- One cat went to the vet's or groomer's and came home smelling, looking, or acting differently.
- Misdirected aggression, for example, they are frustrated by an intruder cat in the garden or a stressful noise but redirect their frustrations toward their housemate instead.
- They reached social maturity at around two years old and no longer tolerate sharing their territory.
- There are not enough resources in the home, such as litter trays, resting spots, and feeding stations, which causes conflict.
- There are not enough escape routes or hiding places for cats that don't get on well, ultimately leading to a fight.
- A young cat is irritating an older cat by trying to engage in play.
- One cat resents interacting as they are in pain, for example, due to arthritis or toothache.
- One cat's odor has changed due to a disease, such as an ear infection or an impacted anal gland, or one cat is unable to smell properly, for example, due to a respiratory infection, causing confusion as they rely heavily on their sense of smell.
- A disease in an older cat has caused a change in behavior, such as dementia, a central nervous system or adrenal gland tumor, or hyperthyroidism.
How to Stop An Aggressive Cat Fight
Stopping cats from fighting is vital for their well-being. Not only can they inflict severe injuries upon one another, but ongoing conflict and stress in the home can lead to behavioral problems, such as urinating outside the litter box, or trigger medical issues, such as cystitis and cat flu flare-ups.
1. Safety First
Do not try to handle fighting cats, as they will likely redirect their aggression toward you, and you may get bitten. Instead, try to stop cats from fighting by placing a large blanket, cushion, or piece of cardboard between them and herding them away from each other, or throw a large thick blanket over the aggressor so the victim can run away.
2. Do Not Punish Your Cats
Verbal or physical punishment will only increase fear and anxiety, and may lead to a worsening of aggressive behaviors.
3. Separation and Slow Reintroduction
If your cats are fighting frequently or severely, they may need to be separated for at least 24–48 hours to allow them time to cool off and then slowly reintroduced in a controlled manner. For more information, read How to Reintroduce Cats After a Fight.
4. Consult a Veterinarian
It's essential to consult a vet to rule out or treat medical conditions that can increase aggression due to pain, a change in demeanor, or a change in smell. If medical issues are ruled out, and the problem is likely behavioral, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, if deemed appropriate, or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who has undergone extensive training in pet behavior and can assess your situation to create a customized plan.
5. Provide Multiple Resources
Multiple resources should be provided throughout the home, including food and water bowls, litter boxes, scratching posts, and areas for sleeping, hiding, and resting. Each cat should ideally have their own set of resources in separate locations to create a safe haven and reduce competition and conflict. Each resource should also have more than one exit/entry point to avoid a cat becoming trapped.
6. Provide Enrichment
Provide plenty of opportunities for physical stimulation, such as regular playtime with fishing rod-type toys that bring out their inner hunter and help release their frustrations and aggressions. There should also be cat trees and shelves throughout the home for them to explore and climb, and to use as lookout areas where they may feel safer.
Additionally, provide plenty of opportunities for mental stimulation, such as puzzle feeders, playing games on a tablet, watching cat TV, and clicker training.
7. Feed in Separate Locations
Cats are naturally solitary hunters and feeders, so they should be fed at the opposite end of the room or, ideally, in separate rooms to avoid creating tension and conflict.
If your cats don't get along well, you may also need to prepare their food without either of them present.
8. Reduce Triggers
Cats can become stressed or fearful due to a loud noise or an intruder cat in the garden and redirect their aggression onto their housemate.
If one of your cats has a noise phobia, do your best to eliminate and keep them away from the noise. You may also need to try behavioral modification techniques such as gradual desensitization with positive reinforcement under the guidance of a behaviorist.
If stranger cats come into your garden and trigger aggression and fights between your cats, consider the following:
- Motion-activated sprinklers. Use a motion-activated water sprinkler in your yard, such as the Orbit Yard Enforcer, to humanely scare away unwanted cat visitors.
- Fence extension. If cats enter your garden by jumping over the fence, extend the height using extension posts with wire mesh, lattice panels, or a trellis. The extension should be too thin or uncomfortable for a cat to be able to sit on top. If they enter underneath your fence, block access using a Garden Fence Animal Barrier. However, these techniques will only be effective if there are no other ways into your yard.
- Specialized cat-proof fencing. Fencing designed to keep your cats inside the garden, such as Oscillot, will allow your cats to enjoy the safety of your garden without escaping. Although it may not prevent other cats from getting in, usually, they will not return once they realize they can't get out again until someone releases them.
- Deter outside cats from watching. If there are certain areas where outside cats sit and stare at your cats, such as on the wall or a window sill, try placing spikey Cat Scat Mats to prevent them from sitting there. Trellis can also be placed on the wall.
- Don't feed strays. If you feed stray cats in your garden, provide them with food elsewhere.
- Remove bird feeders. Removing wildlife feeders may be necessary since they attract cats into your garden.
- Microchip-activated cat flap. If you have a cat flap that non-resident cats use to enter your home, switch it to a microchip-activated cat flap, such as the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap, that will only allow access to your cats.
- Cover windows and glass doors. In the rooms where cats can be seen outside, close blinds or curtains. Alternatively, use Frosted Glass Window Film, which blocks your cat from seeing outside while still letting natural light into the room.
- Place resources away from windows. Move resting areas, water bowls, food bowls, and litter trays away from windows and glass doors, so they don't feel threatened while eating, sleeping, and toileting.
9. Calming Supplements and Pheromones
Calming supplements and pheromones can help create a feeling of well-being and improve your cats relationship. However, they should never be used as the sole treatment and always alongside behavioral and environmental modifications.
- Feliway Optimum: releases a complex of calming feline pheromones into the environment, which can help reduce aggression between cats.2 Place them in the rooms where your cats spend most of their time.
- Zylkene: contains alpha-casozepine, a peptide derived from milk protein, with calming properties.3 The capsules can be opened and mixed with a small amount of wet food or an irresistible treat, such as Churu Lickable Purée Treats.
- Anxitane: palatable chewable tablets that many cats take like treats. They contain L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea that promotes relaxation.4
- Purina Calming Care: contains the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium longum (BL999), which has been shown to help maintain calm behavior, likely due to influencing the gut-brain axis (communication between the gut and the central nervous system).5
- Royal Canin Calm Cat Food: contains tryptophan, a precursor for serotonin, which promotes a feeling of well-being.6
If all attempts have been made to resolve the conflict between two cats, including consulting a veterinary behaviorist, but fights are still occurring, rehoming or permanently separating the cats may be preferable to ensure their well-being and safety.
If you decide to rehome one of your cats, find a reputable rescue organization or shelter that can provide a loving and safe environment, or consider rehoming to a friend or family member.
- Gajdoš-Kmecová N, Peťková B, Kottferová J, Halls V, Haddon C, de Assis LS, Mills DS. An ethological analysis of close-contact inter-cat interactions determining if cats are playing, fighting, or something in between. Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 26;13(1):92.
- DePorter TL, Bledsoe DL, Beck A, Ollivier E. Evaluation of the efficacy of an appeasing pheromone diffuser product vs placebo for management of feline aggression in multi-cat households: a pilot study. J Feline Med Surg. 2019 Apr;21(4):293-305.
- Makawey A, Iben C, Palme R. Cats at the Vet: The Effect of Alpha-s1 Casozepin. Animals (Basel). 2020 Nov 5;10(11):2047.
- Dramard V, Kern L, Hofmans J, Rème CA, Nicolas CS, Chala V, Navarro C. Effect of l-theanine tablets in reducing stress-related emotional signs in cats: an open-label field study. Ir Vet J. 2018 Oct 9;71:21.
- Colorado State University Study EvaluatesProbiotic for Calming Effects in Cats
- Landsberg G, Milgram B, Mougeot I, Kelly S, de Rivera C. Therapeutic effects of an alpha-casozepine and L-tryptophan supplemented diet on fear and anxiety in the cat. J Feline Med Surg. 2017 Jun;19(6):594-602.