It may be hard to imagine that cats lounging around the house feel stressed, but medical studies prove that they do and that it can lead to aggressive play.
“We put cats in abnormal situations when we keep them inside and confine them with multiple cats,” said Valarie Tynes, DVM, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). “Yet cat lovers know it’s hard to get just one.”
To keep cats happy, veterinary behavior specialists suggest that owners play for at least five minutes each day with cats individually or in a group. To determine whether you should separate cats for play, watch to see if they sleep side by side and groom each other, Tynes said. That behavior indicates good interaction and gives a green light to group play, she said.
“Playtime provides mental stimulation and exercise,” Tynes said. “If you don’t engage your cats you have all these potential problems with aggression as well as obesity. The goal is to get these animals up and off the sofa. They need [owner] involvement.”
Step one is to teach cats what is appropriate play.
Cats that attack moving feet or jump on owners without warning may not have learned the basics, Tynes explained. “Kittens learn if they hurt other kittens or cats [then] play ends,” she said. “Unfortunately people don’t understand how to set these rules.”
To establish positive playtime use toys — not hands or feet — to start games that involve chasing and pouncing. Kitty fishing lines, balls, and furry mice held a few feet away from the body are good tools to use.
Overall, play aggression normally occurs when cats misinterpret owner actions as games, say behavior experts. For example: One cat regularly jumped on two young boys as they raced down a hallway after bath time.
“The kids were screaming and chasing each other and the cat thought it was funny to land on the kids’ butts,” said Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, ACVB diplomate. “He thought there was a really good game going on.”
She suggested that the owners shut the door to the cat’s room during bath time so he couldn’t see the boys run down the hallway. The “attacks” stopped.
Owners can also try distracting a cat during instances of play aggression. By throwing something a toy across a cat’s line of vision, he/she will chase it instead of going after your feet.
In addition to establishing positive playtime, owners need to recognize and respect a cat’s limits. Some cats are finicky about what types of toys they like and are specific about the type of attention they want.
“Most cats do not like to be held upside down or scratched on the belly,” Crowell-Davis said. Since they groom each other on the head and neck those are safe areas but signs — like twitching tails and low growling noises — indicate that they have had enough.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 4, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.