Difference between cats playing and fighting

I can understand the problem in differentiating between cats playing and fighting. It can be difficult, on the face of it, to tell the difference. This is because domestic cats don’t play like humans. They don’t play Scrabble or Monopoly or chess. They don’t play hopscotch on the pavement. When domestic cats play, they play-fight. There is a merging of two aspects of feline behaviour so the question is where is the threshold between playing and fighting?

Whap. Wham. Bam. Kittens hits cat.
Whap. Wham. Bam. Kittens hits cat. Play.
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Summary

The differences can perhaps be summed up as follows. When cats are playing and not genuinely fighting:

  1. The degree of aggression is lower
  2. There is no pre-fight suma style stand off and yowling
  3. The full range of feline, fighting body language is not demonstrated
  4. The volume of the sounds they make is turned down
  5. They are not injured
  6. One cat might invite the other to play-fight by rolling on his back
Lynx kittens play-fighting
Lynx kittens play-fighting. Photo in public domain.

Personal Experience

About ten years ago while staying at A1 Savannahs in Oklahoma, USA, I remember watching an F1 playing with F2 Savannah kittens. It was hard play. They were being socialised inside the home of Mr and Mrs Stucki who at that time owned A1 savannahs. The noise that these kittens produced was enormous as you can tell from the video below. There is real aggression here but it was play. Perhaps the wild cat genes (they are high filial wildcat hybrids) inside these kittens made it more aggressive.

It concerned me that they were hurting each other when it was meant to be fun and play. Martin Stucki said that kittens learn how far they can go when they play-fight. They learn because the recipient of aggressive play which includes biting complains vociferously as you can hear in the video.

Discussion

There is therefore a limit to how far cats and kittens go when they are playing rough. They stop at that limit. I was going to say that they don’t show the usual body language of cats who are engaged in true fighting. I don’t think that’s completely true because when cats are playing they do put their ears back to protect them and sometimes you see kittens doing the crab walk which is practising for the real thing.

However, you won’t see the full range of domestic cat, aggression body language when cats are playing. For instance there won’t be a stand-off before the fight. There won’t be that aggressive yowling and howling during stand-off with the ears flattened and the hair on their backs and tails raised. You will see wrestling and noise but the pre-fight “sumo wrestling” stand off does not take place when kittens and cats are play-fighting.

Serval and F2 Savannah play at A1 Savannahs' house
Serval and F2 Savannah play at A1 Savannahs’ house. They were underfoot.

I’ll throw my hat into the ring and say that a good sign that cats are playing and not fighting is that you can tell the level of aggression in cats by the ferocity of their behaviour and the heightened sounds that they make. It is certainly a question of degree but once you know cats the difference between playing and fighting is very apparent.

The cats in the video are play-fighting to the limit in my opinion. If they went any further than this they would be too aggressive and you could call it fighting. When domestic cats genuinely fight over territory it is incredibly ferocious and very harmful to both cats. They are injured, sometimes seriously. You can see videos of real cat fighting on YouTube. You’ll see the difference.

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