How rough is too rough for kitten playing?
July 21, 2020 7:16 AM   Subscribe

We recently adopted two kittens, a male and female from the same litter. He's much larger than she is, and I can't tell if they are playing, or fighting for real. More details and video inside.

Salt (small female) and Eminence (large male) are about eleven weeks old. They were previously fostered by my husband's co-worker, for the local animal rescue league. They send kittens home after they are fixed, which happens when a kitten hits two pounds. Eminence is much larger, and always has been, so he came home three weeks ago. Salt came home one week ago. She's smaller and shyer, and we kept them separated almost all the time at first- he goes into attack/rough play mode whenever he sees her, and her incision from the spay surgery needed to heal.
It's been a week, and we've been keeping one or the other of them shut in the guest room the whole time, except for a few brief encounters which have led to a lot of hissing/growling/wrestling. Almost every time, he pins her and bites her neck or hind legs while she growls/hisses/squalls. She does get some significant bites/kicks in of her own. However, she will also initiate battles. We have been putting him the carrier to cool down when it seems like it's getting too rough, and he howls the whole time, she comes and sniffs/bats at him through the bars.
I know kittens play much rougher than we would let human kids play, but I'm concerned he's going to hurt her.
Can you look at the videos linked below and help me figure out if this is a normal level of kitten play?
I would say these fights are a 6-8 out of 10 on the intensity scale.
Video 1
Video 2
posted by Adridne to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Awww! Normal, normal, normal. Look how both of them keep glancing up at you with those big eyes: they're not even a little bit serious. Their ears are up almost all of the time and their tail back and tail fur is smooth. There's a lot of give-and-take and even when he gets her in a vulnerable spot (like when he grabs her back leg in his mouth at a joint), he doesn't press the advantage. And she's definitely jumping right back in, not trying to run away and cower somewhere safe. They're just being kitties. :)
posted by teremala at 7:38 AM on July 21, 2020 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Totally normal. I'd say that's like a 3-4 out of 10 on the cat fight scale. When people talk about fur flying from a cat fight, they're not kidding - we have two boys who've really gone at it and there's chunks of fur gone everywhere.

One thing you can do if it worries you is to help them get some of their fightiness out with a toy. Break out a feather cat toy or something and get them fighting that to tire them out. Or a laser / red dot is good too. When I do this I try to get them tuckered out a bit and then give them a few treats to signal that they "caught" their prey and we're done for now.
posted by jzb at 7:45 AM on July 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: So normal! They’re learning how to be cats!
You can always try to distract them with a toy if you like, but this is absolutely nothing to worry about.
And—they are both gorgeous and delightful!
posted by bookmammal at 7:47 AM on July 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If one cat seems unpleased with it and wants to stop (and says so with a distressed cry) a mother cat might step in and give the bossier one a tut-tut.

You can be the mom cat and step in for a moment. They may not have had a mom to give a bit of discipline.
posted by ReluctantViking at 8:00 AM on July 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for this looks like normal (happy!) kitten behavior.

I also have a sibling pair where the girl is much smaller than her brother. She quickly learned how to fight smart, and can absolutely trounce him when she wants to.

It can be hard to confidently judge when play is shading into fighting. The tells for my cats include: the pace picks up, ears go back, back and tail fur go up, one cat is consistently on the defensive/trying to get away, loud hissing/baring teeth. Of course, these aren't 100% diagnostic -- as a kitten, one of my cats would go into full halloween-cat-mode with her back arched, all fur standing up, and bounce around attacking a ball. She was definitely playing, even though her fur was up. The kitten cries/yelps are how part of how they teach each other what's too much.

As others have recommended, I'd definitely try playing with them a few times a day, and see what happens after you tire them out. At that age, my cats *loved* a bit of fluff on an elastic string, and would do a great job taking turns attacking it. (Don't leave it out for them when you're not playing, since they might eat the string.) Their current favorites are a feather bouncer wand toy, and the Purr Peller. Laser dots are always a hit, and a low-human-effort way to play with them.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:05 AM on July 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with everyone else! Totally looks like normal kittens play fighting each other. They've got a lot to learn, and a lot of energy to burn, so let them have their fun. If you start to hear any unhappy noises or skittish behavior, then it is worth stepping in. They are both so adorable! :D Makes me want more kittens...
posted by rambling wanderlust at 8:24 AM on July 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Looks like normal play to me too. I think it's fine to break it up if you think it's getting too rough, but I don't think carrier cool-down time is a good strategy -- kittens need to get that crazy energy out somehow, so, you'd be better off distracting & redirecting when you think the fight is getting too one-sided. Get some feather-on-a-string toys and make them jump around for it.
posted by oh yeah! at 8:46 AM on July 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Try getting a kicker toy for him to eviserate. Make sure he's neutered, too.
posted by mightshould at 8:47 AM on July 21, 2020

Best answer: Salt is doing a good job of holding her own.
Once the boy is fixed, he'll settle down.
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:03 AM on July 21, 2020

Best answer: It seems normal to me, although I understand why the visual of a large kitten "beating up" a small kitten is a bit distressing for you.

A real fight, between two adult cats, is a whole other story. They would be having a tense stand-off with lots of howling, screeching, hissing, backs arched, ears back, tails puffy, etc. And the fight itself would be an absolute fury of kicking and biting and more screeching, faster than the eyes can see! It would leave no doubt in your mind about the seriousness.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:08 AM on July 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Playing. I think it will be obvious to you when/as/if they are actually fighting. Kitties gonna kitty.
posted by AugustWest at 9:15 AM on July 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is completely normal, and also a huge part of why kittens now are often homed in pairs, or into a home with another young cat. They have So Much Energy, and if they don't have each other to do this with, they either get bored, or into trouble.

Thank you for keeping a bonded pair together, in a year or two they will probably spend more time napping together than tussling.

A few things happen when cats are really fighting.

1. It doesn't generally last long
2. It is loud (screaming, and banging into things more violently)
3. One cat leaves and hides (sometimes both do) for a while
posted by bilabial at 9:20 AM on July 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is normal play - your male is establishing his dominance in the relationship. But when she squeals and consistently runs away from him, she's saying she needs a break. Try getting him to play hard and get a bit tired before putting them together, and if he gets too rough, bat him lightly on the ears and tell him "NO - too rough."

As long as she's not physically injured and is coming back to the tussle, she's happy and it's all ok. If she gets mad, watch for her to turn into a she-devil and teach him some caution. This might take her growing to a bit more equal size with him.
posted by summerstorm at 9:21 AM on July 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all, this has been very reassuring.
Both cats are already fixed.
They've now been together for several hours, longer than they had been since we brought her home, and they seem like they're starting to calm down. I've definitely seen her walk up to him and start an interaction, so I don't think she's being terrorized.
We do play with them quite a bit, and have tried to tire him out before letting them play together- he was lying on the floor panting from chasing the mouse-on-a-string toy, but at the first glimpse of her he was up and running.
I'll look for some kicker toys. Is there something about these toys that makes them particularly attractive? We have two little kids as well, so we are not short of stuffies. Early on he got into quite a battle with the stuffed octopus...
posted by Adridne at 10:14 AM on July 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

The mystery of what toy/game/human body part any given cat is going to enjoy (and why) is one for the ages.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

In my experience, kicker toys are appealing because a) they're often covered in a slightly rough cotton fabric, for maximally satisfying scritch-scritch-scritch noise when kicked; b) they're often a good shape for holding with the front paws and kicking with the back legs like a mighty beast; and c) they often have dried catnip mixed in with the filling, which is great for cats that enjoy drugs. My cats are big fans of the Yeowww! brand toys, especially the banana, rainbow, apple, and Pollock fish varieties.
posted by neushoorn at 11:58 AM on July 21, 2020

Most kitties love the Yeowww! banana. Also, just recently one of my cats decided that an empty paper towel tube is an excellent kicker toy. Your new kitties are beautiful!
posted by poppunkcat at 12:05 PM on July 21, 2020

It is ESSENTIAL that you please smooch their tummies for me asap for the good of the world and for science thank you

(Also, they are healthy and good playmates. What a lucky pair!)
posted by Kitchen Witch at 2:38 PM on July 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

Those precious buddies are just having a good time and doing their thing. What a sweet crew!
posted by porn in the woods at 5:06 PM on July 21, 2020

Such beautiful fur! And delightful to watch.
posted by lhauser at 6:24 PM on July 21, 2020

Response by poster: And there shall be peace in our time!
posted by Adridne at 6:45 PM on July 21, 2020 [13 favorites]

Ooooohhhhhh. My heart is melting. So precious!
(But just know that they’ll be back at it any time now!)
posted by bookmammal at 7:26 PM on July 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Normal, and as the proprietor of a four-year old pair of littermate brothers, I’d expect the play fighting to look even more intense than that as they get older and bigger — my two, at about a year old, fought like cats in a cartoon, just a rolling cloud of fur with occasional heads and feet becoming visible. But if the fighting ends and they go right back to sitting around together or grooming each other, it’s still fine even if it looks violent.
posted by LizardBreath at 6:08 AM on July 22, 2020

We also got littermates who would sometimes play rough and basically would break them up (by clapping loudly) when play-fighting led to neck biting (neither cat likes that at all) or devolved into bunny kicks to each others heads. It's really just for our benefit. Fur does fly. Like they claw out chunks of fur. Every once in a while one of the cats will clearly want to be left alone (jumps up onto a chair or the cat tree and stays there) and I will then relocate the fighty cat to another room for a minute. They weren't ever separated like your kittens (feral rescues that came straight home with us because they weren't big enough for neutering), so they stuck closely to one another for the first few months as they got used to us. 14 months later, they still play-fight and go rampaging around the house chasing each other from time to time.

Basically, keep an eye out for when a cat is fleeing to flee and not as an enticement to chase.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:18 PM on July 22, 2020

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