What to do with a cat who plays too rough

As cat lovers, we’ve all been scratched at least once. But why do some cats play so rough when others never scratch or bite?

four white kittens relaxing in the grass under a tree

Cats, by their very nature, are vicious hunters. These behaviors are formed when they are very young by instinct, observation and playing with their littermates. Through stalking, chasing, swatting, biting and pouncing on their siblings, kittens develop their precise hunting skills. But when cats are removed from this environment too young or don’t have an adult cat to keep them in line, they might never learn how to play gently. This can cause our pets to play too roughly with each other or attack us when we least expect it. Without adequate outlets to express themselves naturally, cats seek out others to engage in their need to play, hunt, and be physically active.

white kitten biting mom's ear

Feline play aggression is a common complaint among cat lovers, but it doesn’t have to be. If you know what to look for, it’s easy to redirect and retrain your kitty to be a gentle hunter. Keep in mind, your cat's actions are normal, natural, and instinctual for all felines.

white kitten hissing at camera

Natural play behavior can vary slightly from one cat to another, but in general, play mimics the hunt. Cats like to stalk, ambush and chase. Once they catch their prey—whether real or fake—they might even kick, bite or scratch. That’s usually what has happened when us humans get a nip or a scratch. We’ve become the “prey.” And if you scurry away, you probably look like you’re playing along.

If your cat is prone to aggressive play, it’s important to understand that punishments won’t work. Yelling at your cat or breaking out the spray bottle could actually make their behavior worse. Even pulling away from an aggressive kitty can trigger their hunting instincts. Stay calm and redirect the behavior. It may take a little time, but with patience, you can keep cats and humans safe and happy.

two kittens outside staring a third ginger colored kitten who is acting like it is going to attack them

If your cat likes to play roughly with other cats, make sure it’s consensual on both sides. If either cat is exhibiting body language associated with fear or aggression—such as an arched back, hissing, raised fur, or lowered ears—it’s a good idea to separate the cats until the playful one has a chance to release some of his energy. Try breaking out a wand toy or stuffed kicker toy to distract him.

Wiggly Wand cat toy

When part of a litter, if a kitten is too rough, mom and the litter mates will let him know with a nip, scratch or hiss. Over time, they learn not to be too rough. But what might be just fine for another cat, could leave a nasty mark on a human. So we might need to teach them how to play with us by redirecting their behavior.

close up of two grey and white kittens wrestling face to face

If your cat is prone to biting or scratching you during play, make sure you aren’t encouraging it. Never use your hands as toys. Even a gentle cat may go a bit too far once and a while. Give kitty adequate playthings to keep him entertained. You might even try catnip or silver vine to encourage the use of toys.

cat biting on a person's finger

A cat’s hunting style is key. For example, the cat who likes to chase might enjoy a wiggly ball. Or a prince of pounce might love a magic carpet. It might take a little trial and error at first but once you get to know what your cat loves, it’s easy to get them to engage in play.

Tabby kitten leaping toward a Wiggly Ball trying to catch it

Cats who play too roughly might simply be bored. Playtime is key to keeping these kitty’s behavior in check. When you give your cat lots of opportunity for meaningful, enriching play, their minds and bodies get the activity they need and our scratched up hands and feet get a much-needed break

black cat lying on white towel with a wiggly pong cat toy

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  • Tony Gutierrez

    My cat is 6 months old, he loves to play rough by hit & run tactics, meaning he’ll attack, quick bite and quickly runs away…..Why is that?

  • Sue Schwartz

    My cat Jesse is way too aggressive when he plays. He doesn’t bite but he chases and rolls my female cats and is really annoying one of his big brothers. What can I do?

  • shirley swaine

    I hiss at mine, like another cat would – and at close quarters if need be. Sure, I felt foolish the first couple of times I did it, but boy, did the cat take notice! It is after all, their language.

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