Are these cats playing or fighting? Answer: they are doing both.

When young cats play it is play-fighting
When young cats play it is play-fighting. Screenshot.
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A cat owner on the social media website asked the question in the title and I have provided the answer in the title. Kittens and young cats play a lot as we know. I can think of three forms of kitten play all of which are based on varying degrees of violence!

  1. Kitten plays with parent or adult;
  2. Sibling kittens play with each other;
  3. Kitten plays with toy.

Note: This is an embedded video from another website. Sometimes they are deleted at source or the video is turned into a link which would stop it working here. I have no control over this.

Kitten plays with mother

We see this and we also see, in the wild, cubs playing with their father or another adult sometimes. But when a kitten plays with their parent it appears to me that there is less apparent violence but it is still there nonetheless. Kittens might bite their parent’s tail or their ear, for instance. There is at least a modicum of limited violence underpinning this form of play. Adult can become irritated! This is a reflection of what happens when adult cats play with their human caregiver which might also cause irritation 😉.

Sibling kittens play with each other

This, to me, is all about fighting. Kittens playing are in fact play-fighting. You can break down kitten play into various social postures such as the following: belly-up, standing over, side-stepping, pouncing, chasing, vertical stance, horizontal leaping and face-off. In the first posture, the kitten lies on their back and all four of their limbs are extended almost vertically as they bat at the “attacking” kitten. This is an invitation to play-fight. Pouncing is self-evident. It is inherently aggressive and it would seem to be linked to predatory behaviour. The same goes for chasing and when kittens face-off this is preparation for those moments when they become adults and they have to face-off an adult intruder onto their territory.

Social play is about a physical interaction with other kittens. Many of these behaviours are inherited or modified version of aggressive encounters between cats or during predation. So quite distinctly, the ingredients of kitten and young cats play are fighting and predation.

Kitten plays with toy

This is all about predation. Once again you can break down this form of play into various actions such as: chasing/pouncing, tossing, scooping, grasping, poking and batting, and mouthing and biting. When a kitten plays with toys, they are developing their predatory skills. Every form of ‘object play’ as it is called is about improving these skills through improved dexterity and the handling of objects that will become prey animals.

And when adult cats play, they play like kittens. They no longer need to develop their predatory skills but they are emotionally and mentally speaking still kittens. There are kept in this state by their human caregiver who provides for them in every aspect of their lives just as their mother would in the wild before they become independent.

Learning from mother

In the wild, of course, the mother teaches her offspring how to hunt and kill in stages. But the above forms of play are an adjunct to being taught by their mother.

Violence and aggression

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the play of young domestic cats is so closely tied to violence and aggression. And it seems that this has to be the case because domestic cats are premier predators. They are one of the world’s best predators. Their survival depends upon successful predation. They need to self-train themselves to achieve success. It is instinctive. And that’s why play for young cats is all about violence.

Combination of social and object play

Turn the sound off before playing the video 😎. This shows mainly social play but also glimpses of object play.

Below are some more pages on play.

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