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Play Aggression in Cats

Why do cats sometimes bite humans during play sessions?

Cats may be aggressive for many reasons. Sometimes that aggression is directed toward humans at a time when we least expect it: during play.

Causes of Play Aggression in Cats

Cats may act aggressive during play because they become afraid. This may happen if the cat did not have positive interactions with a variety of people during the key socialization period from 3-16 weeks of age. These cats may be shy and unwilling to approach people. They may become aggressive if they feel cornered and unable to escape. Frequent, gentle handling by people at an early age helps prevent this type of aggression. Therefore, this behavior is most commonly seen in late-adopted feral cats.

Inappropriate play is another behavior that may lead to abnormal play interactions with humans. When kittens begin to play with each other and their mother at an early age, they are taught by the other cats to inhibit their bite and retract their claws. Cats that never learn to temper these responses because they were abandoned or taken from their litters too soon may play aggressively with humans, and people can be injured.

Most play aggression involves young cats (less than 3 years old) weaned at an early age or hand-raised and bottle-fed. Often, these cats are the only cat in the household. They may be described as "vicious," but their motivation is play-predatory behavior toward a moving object, most often the hands, feet, legs, or ankles of a family member. The cat will crouch, waiting with a focused stare for someone to walk by or reach toward her. Her tail twitches, then she stalks, chases, pounces on, scratches, or bites her inappropriate "prey." These cats do not usually growl during this behavior.

Treatment of Play Aggression in Cats

Owners must never let kittens or cats play directly with their hands or feet. This will only encourage inappropriate play and play aggression. Use interactive toys instead. These remove the humans' hands and other body parts from direct play with the cat. Throw small balls, crumpled paper, or foil. Drag feathers with a wand. Cats need an outlet for their energy and predatory instincts, so daily vigorous play sessions of 15-20 minutes or more are helpful.

During an "attack," distract the cat away from your legs or feet by throwing small balls or toys away from yourself to redirect the play activity. Don't be a fun target!

Consult with your veterinarian for specific advice on modifying this behavior. Attack cats can cause harm to people, and this behavior must be controlled.

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