How to tell if your cats are fighting or playing, according to scientists. Discussion.

The Telegraph journalist who reported on a study has got the headline wrong I believe: “How to tell if your cats are fighting or playing, according to scientists”. For domestic cats – most often kittens – inter-cat play (between cats) is a form of fighting. Playing with an object is a hunting substitute.

Feline play with an object boils down to ‘play-hunting’. Inter-cat domestic cat play is often fairly aggressive. It is rough play. If it gets too rough the recipient tells the other cat to back off by screaming at them or hissing.

The point I am making is that you can’t really divorce kitten play with another kitten from fighting. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that there is a method for telling if a cat is fighting or playing. They are often (all the time?) one and the same thing.

Cats play-fighting
Cats play-fighting. Infographic by MikeB.
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There are one or two good points though in The Telegraph article. Sometimes the hiss (used in play) is misinterpreted as a sign of aggression but it is not, I’d argue. It is employed by a domestic cat in a standoff with another cat to back off. It is a defensive measure designed to stop aggression not to be aggressive per se.

The hiss is also employed to tell humans. It is an evolutionary development over eons by the wildcat ancestor which copies or mimics the snake’s hiss. The North African wildcat realised that the animal kingdom understands that the snake’s hiss is a sign of danger. The response is to clear off and so they copied it as it is a useful ‘tool’ in survival.

When kittens play, they are developing their fighting skills. They are preparing themselves for adulthood when they’ll need those skills to see off other cats who invade their home range and other hostile animals such as predators.

It is a sign that the domestic cat is wild cat heart. All their character is based upon the character of their wild ancestor modified to a certain extent by 10,000 years of domestication which has failed to rub out the wild cat just under the surface.

Human play

The purpose behind human play is, I would argue often (but not always) different to the reason behind cat play and indeed dog play. And human play is more variable and nuanced.

Whereas cats primarily play for a purpose and perhaps dogs play to establish dominance at least sometimes, humans generally engage in play activities for the fun of it.

But, in human play there is a purpose as well such as establishing social rank and learning social skills.

Human play is also about social bonding. And of course, when it is conducted formally as in sports it is not only enjoyable but it improves motor coordination. It provides humans with a purpose and a desire to improve and establish an individual as different and superior in that area of activity through competition. When a person is gifted in sports that enjoy competition because they enjoy winning and they enjoy winning because they enjoy dominance.

Also, humans play can help to manage stress. There is an overlap here I would argue with cats. When a cat plays with their owner it helps them to de-stress and bond; another overlap with human play. However, it seems that cat play is more purposeful in general and more about self-training rather than pure entertainment.


The study referred to in the opening paragraph (don’t have the title) was carried out by Prof Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln and PhD student Noema Gajdoš Kmecová, now at the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia.

Below are some more articles on play.

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