Social play in the domestic cat – friendship, exercise and fun

This article, social play in the domestic cat is based upon a research paper of the same title dated 1974 and prepared at the Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 14850. The author is Meredith West. It was published on the Internet by Oxford Journals under the heading, Integrative and Comparative Biology. It is a purchased article. The purpose of the study was to “examine social activity in the domestic cat and to explore its usefulness as an explanatory concept”. It is quite technical. It breaks down kitten and cat play into different types which are joined together.

Meredith concludes, in outline, that social play in the domestic cat is for the purpose of:

  • developing and maintaining friendly relations and the benefits that flow from that;
  • physical exercise and;
  • sheer enjoyment. Play is a pleasurable pastime for kittens of a certain age.
Kittens social playing
Kittens social playing. Photograph: Melanie DeFazio/Stocksy United
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

Twenty-eight domestic cats were studied from between 12 weeks and 7 months of age over a 2-year period. Mothers were kept with young for the study. Several locations were used to reflect the range of living conditions under which the domestic cat usually lives. Fourteen kittens and mothers were studied in a laboratory. Fourteen were observed by the author (or “observer” – I have presumed this is the same person) in her home. The home was in a rural area and the cats were indoor/outdoor cats. Observations were made daily for 90-minute periods.

The cats were fed twice a day. The food included milk, cottage cheese and Purina canned and dry food. Comment: ordinary cow’s milk is not advisable for cats as it can cause diarrhea; perhaps it was specially prepared milk for cats. Purina animal test their products. So, I am not sure that I agree with this part of the study! Feral cats were also observed to check (a) duration of parent to young relationship and (b) space used by mother & kittens.

Eight categories of “motor patterns” were identified in regards to social play in the domestic cat. “Motor pattern” means: a particular sequence of muscle movements directed to accomplishing an external purpose1. Meredith says that these motor patterns are the “building blocks” of play. In other words, individual types of play are a sequence of some of the motor patterns employed by two or more kittens.

Belly up posture (BU)

Kitten lies on back; belly up. Limbs are in a “semi-vertical” position. Tail is straight back. Back legs are moved in a treading motion and the front legs make reaching or pawing movements that touch the kitten standing over it at the head, neck and ventral region (front or anterior of the cat). Mouth is open. Teeth are exposed. In my view this is always an invitation to the other cat to pounce and engage in play.

Stand-up (SU)

This kitten stands “near or over another kitten”. The head is near the head and neck of the other kitten. This kitten may direct play bites at the kitten doing BU. The SU kitten may paw at the BU kitten. The SU and BU kittens alternate in their roles while playing.

Vertical stance (VO)

This is classic position we see in some of the funny cat videos, where the cat sits up in the meerkat position but also raises its forelegs to perpendicular to its body (straight up). The kitten exercising the VO position will also put itself in the “bipedal position” (up on its hind legs). Comment: the kittens or cats start ‘boxing’ each other. It is very typical to see this. Sometimes the cats start to play pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake in a ritualized form of play.

Horizontal leap (HL)

The kitten taking up the horizontal leap motor pattern stands to one side of the other kitten, arches its back slightly with its tail “curved upwards and towards its body.” It then leaps off the ground.

Pounce (P)

Head is low or touching the ground. Its back legs are tucked in and tail straight back. Its hind quarters are moved back and forth indicating a readiness to pounce. The kitten moves forward and pounces.

Face-off (FO)

The FO kitten “sits near another kitten”. It hunches its body forwards. Its tail moves back and forth. One of its front paws is lifted and moved in the direction of the other kitten. Its eyes and head are also “orientated towards the other kitten”.  Two kittens exercise face-off against each other.

Side-step (SS)

This is similar to HL. The kitten arches its back, curls tail upwards and walks sideways towards or around the other kitten or object.

Chasing (C)

One kitten chases another as expected.

Some of these motor patterns are, as mentioned, joined together in sequence. For instance, the position or motor pattern that most commonly starts play is the pounce. The next most common starter or “first position” is the side-step and third is the stand-up.

As to middle positions of a sequence of positions, the most common is the belly-up and stand-up. As expected, by far the most common final position or action in play is the chase. The horizontal leap also concludes play often but much less often than the chase. To elaborate on that, at 6 weeks of age the play sequences began with a pounce 42% of the time, the side-step 20% of the time and the belly-up and stand-up 15% of the time. This means that four patterns initiated play sequence 90% of the time. At 12 weeks of age there was a difference. Pounces initiated play 37% of the time, stand-up 24%, belly-up 16%, stand-up 17%.

The most commonly used motor patterns employed at 6 weeks of age were belly-up and stand-up, which accounted for 57% of all play patterns. At 12 weeks of age the most common were the same patterns but they accounted for 64% of all play patterns. Pounces never occurred at the end of play and only 7% of the time during a play sequence.

As to the number of patterns joined together in sequence when playing this depends on the age of the kitten:

  • at 6 weeks of age, the average number of patterns joined in sequence was 4.8
  • at 12 weeks of a age, the number of patterns joined in sequence was 8.1

The initiator of social play in the domestic cat (usually with a pounce) dictated to certain extent how the other kitten responded – usually with a belly-up or vertical stance if the initiation was with a pounce. The typical response to a belly-up was the stand-up (62% of the time for 6-week-old kittens). Face-off was”seen in combination with belly-up or stand-up 47% of the time”.

The eight motor patterns were first used at different ages:

Play PatternAge first seen
Belly-up21-23 days
Stand-up23-26 days
Vertical stance35-38 days
Horizontal leap41-46 days
Pounce33-35 days
Face-off42-48 days
Side-step32-34 days
Chase38-41 days

Frequency of social play in the domestic cat varied with age per the chart below from which it can be seen that about 12 weeks of age is the time when play occurs most (almost 60% of the observed time).

There were three or four daily play periods. They occurred at about 7:30 am, 1 pm, 6 pm and 10:30 pm. The duration of play sessions increased with age:

  • 18 mins at 5 weeks of age
  • 46 mins at 9 weeks of age

The amount of time spent sleeping also changed with age:

  • average of 8 mins for 8 to 15 week olds
  • average of 24 mins for 12-week-old kittens
  • average of 31 mins at 20 weeks of age

The amount if time spent on “quiet alert” also depended on the kitten’s age:

  • average of 14 mins for 8 to 16 week old kittens
  • average of 32 mins for 20-week-old kittens

It was noted that the mother of the feral kittens left them alone fend for themselves at 4 months of age. Prior to leaving her kittens they accompanied her when she went to find food. Most often the mother found food alone, however.

The author of Social Play in the Domestic Cat, Meredith West concludes:

  • The ordering of the motor patterns (the chosen sequence in which the individual actions are strung together) “may serve different roles”.
  • Pounces seem to be used to instigate play and increase physical contact and thereby decrease social distance.
  • Social play for kittens is designed to engage in “a particular form of physical contact”.
  • When three kittens play one is peripheral to the other two’s play.
  • Play patterns were “constant in form” and at a “typical intensity”. This made it more predicable and less likely to cause injury. (Note: Martin Stucki of A1 Savannahs says that kittens learn how hard they should bite in play to avoid injury).
  • Play is one way to develop social interaction. Grooming is another.
  • Play “helps to keep littermates on friendly terms”. This helps keep the unit together which aids survival. It also keeps the kittens physically together, which aids the mother.
  • Meredith does not conclude that social play in the domestic cat is practicing for fighting in adulthood. However, in wildcats, Meredith says that with regards to the cheetah, play incorporates a “new slap”, which is used to knock over siblings. This progresses to an adult slap that knocks over prey.
  • Social play in the domestic cat is also a useful form of exercise in a confined space.
  • Social play in the domestic cat declines at 4 months of age as the “litter unit becomes independent from the mother”. Kittens begin to travel from the living area. Social contact declines. Sexual behavior interferes with the play too.

Social Play in the Domestic Cat — Notes:


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