Cats fighting?
April 25, 2006 7:28 AM   Subscribe

How can i tell when my cats are just playing with each verses when they are actually fighting?

I have two cats that have lived together approx. 3 months, in that time every other day or so they will start doing something that looks like wrestling and then chase each other around the apartment. Usually I try to break it up as quickly as possible, but is it possible that they're just playing around?
posted by drezdn to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wrestling and chasing looks like simple playing to me. It's not getting serious until the hissing and the growling really start. We have two cats that get along in a combative fashion and they chase and wrestle (and hiss, sometimes) but it's never gotten out of hand.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:35 AM on April 25, 2006

They're playing around.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:37 AM on April 25, 2006

If you know your animals well, it's usually possible to distinguish between playing and fighting. (Usually, not always.) In our house, which is home to three cats, there's often a grey area between play and fighting, but most of the time the difference is quite clear. We can tell when the cats are happy, and enjoying themselves, and when they're making "ouch that hurt, but keep playing" noises and "you fucker, get away from me" noises. In general, hissing is a bad sign. If a cat is hissing, it's probably not having fun. If it's using claws and teeth all the time, then it's not play. One good sign as to whether the cats are playing or fighting is whether the behavior is instigated by both parties. Our two male cats take turns egging each other on, and each will initiate play. They love it. Our youngest male, though, often provokes our female, and never the other way around. Our female loathes this cat; she hisses, cowers, uses claws and teeth in combat all the time. We try to keep them away from each other.

(p.s. I love the imagery of cats reciting poetry to each other evoked by the typo in your post. It's amusing. In a good way.)
posted by jdroth at 7:44 AM on April 25, 2006

On preview/post: oh yeah, growling is usually not a good sign, either. Some growling can occur in play, but it's usually short and mainly an expression of frustration. Chronic growling == unhappiness.
posted by jdroth at 7:45 AM on April 25, 2006

jdroth: I was thinking the same thing -- playing with verses? I've had a cat tear up a mss before, not good ;-)

versus ;-P
posted by vanoakenfold at 7:52 AM on April 25, 2006

Hissing, growling, and big fat fluffy tails are usually signs of anger - otherwise, they're more than likely just playing.

Our older cat loves nothing better than to sink his four remaining teeth into the younger cat in an effort to control him; the younger cat eggs him on until it happens. They do this for 20 mins then they fall asleep on each other. It looks horribly violent and angry, but it's really just fun for them, I think.
posted by pdb at 7:59 AM on April 25, 2006

If they ain't bleeding, they're playing.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 AM on April 25, 2006

They're playing, and it's good for them. If anything, you're probably confusing them a lot by breaking it up. Are they declawed? If not, just keep an eye to make sure they're not wounding each other.

"Licky-Bitey" is a favorite game of two of our cats, followed by some awesome Cat Sumo (they're both huge).
posted by mkultra at 8:07 AM on April 25, 2006

Licky-Bitey cracked me up, mkultra. It's so much fun to watch. (Followed by Licky-Nappy, the cutest.)
posted by SashaPT at 8:19 AM on April 25, 2006

Mine have lived together for 2 years now, and at LEAST once a day I have to break up a growling/hissing smackdown. I hate it, but I've given up hope that these 2 can live in harmony. As long as no one bleeds, I figure I'l just live with it.

The younger (male) always starts it, and the older (female) is the growler/hisser. What a little fucker he is! I named him El Diablo for a reason, apparently.
posted by tristeza at 8:24 AM on April 25, 2006

Sounds more like playing to me, but at the risk of getting even more meta - For the purposes you describe it doesn't matter if they are fighting. Cats (and most other animals) are going to have some conflicts for the purpose of establishing dominance. If you try to break it up every time, they're just going to do it when you're not around.

I'm presuming these two aren't new to each other and still in the acclimation period.
posted by phearlez at 8:29 AM on April 25, 2006

With my two, I take the same tack my mother did raising us kids - if no one's bleeding, there's nothing to worry about.

Okay, she wasn't THAT blase, but my cats will randomly turn into violent whirlwinds and just as quickly subside. They've never drawn claws on each other, though, so I've never had to worry.
posted by bibbit at 8:43 AM on April 25, 2006

I'd say if you're not sure, then they're just playing. when cats really fight, it is mean - in my experience, they don't bound around the house; they have a staredown and then suddenly jump, hissing and scratching, and then it's over and they slink off to respective corners to nurse their wounds.
posted by mdn at 8:46 AM on April 25, 2006

Sounds like playing to me. Ours behave similarly, and we only break it up when they corner one another, and that's just because the exit from being cornered can destroy people-things -- they're fine.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:58 AM on April 25, 2006

Learn to speak cat! Or understand cat, at least. That page talks about how to read vocalizations and body language to tell the difference between a comfortable, angry, and scared cat.
posted by mendel at 9:32 AM on April 25, 2006

I've been wondering this myself with my cats - thanks for the post.
posted by agregoli at 9:41 AM on April 25, 2006

mendel, that's an awesome link. i recognize some of those illustrated charts from a cat book i have.

in our house, we look at the ear position, facial expression, and tail as a scuffle starts to determine it is just play. then, if one of them shrieks, usually the girl who is smaller, she is probably getting hurt, and it breaks up. we would break it up, but usually the boy lets her go, he's a nice guy.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 9:57 AM on April 25, 2006

From your description, this is cats play fighting and sorting out who is in charge. Three months isn't that long for a pair of cats to have lived together. They will still be sorting out their boundaries and social hierarchy. Don't break up this type of play as this will only prolong the process of sorting out who is top cat. Hierarchy in multi-cat households is often a fluid thing, so expect a few changes in the relationship between your two cats over the years.

Breaking up fights that aren't of the 'to the death' variety will not only confuse the cats but may also inhibit them from boisterous, essential play when you are around. It could also distort the hierarchy and result in one cat becoming a real bully who will wait until you are out of the way before menacing the other cat.

In general cat fights, even of the serious kind are self limiting and it's rare for serious damage to occur. Even territorial, entire males living feral will drop out from a fight before they get badly injured.

As mendel suggested with the very good link, learn some cat language! :)

PS: Look for books on cat behaviour by Jeremy Angel, Roger Tabor or Jane Burton. All three authors use clear illustrations and photographs of cat body language.
posted by Arqa at 10:26 AM on April 25, 2006

If fur flies, there's trouble. It's rare that playing cats yank out each others' hair.
posted by Scram at 10:43 AM on April 25, 2006

It's play-fighting. You can tell from the sounds they make if they're fighting for real or not. Real fighting involves a very unnerving, consistent low growl and lots of hissing and angry meows. You'll definately recognize it as angry and fighting when you hear it, which makes me think that if you're in doubt it's really just play.
posted by easternblot at 12:13 PM on April 25, 2006

I generally concur re: If They Were Fighting, You Would Know. I have a Big Young Cat and a Runty Older Cat, and I've seen both playing and fighting behavior - playing generally involves wrestling and chasing, but the chasing is done more-or-less equally by both - Big Cat chases Little Cat through to the bedroom, they wrestle, then Little Cat chases Big Cat back to the kitchen, etc.

If hissing, growling, and serious bent back ears ("Mad Cat" face) are involved, it's probably fighting, although breaking it up isn't necessarily the best idea. Unless one of them is bleeding, or Big Cat is bullying Little Cat, it's probably best to let them sort it out.
posted by muddgirl at 1:19 PM on April 25, 2006

My two boys fight on occasion (my wife's cat is a bully). We can tell the play-fighting from the actual fighting because my cat will make a really loud howling screech until we break it up.

Also, if my (submissive) cat picks a "fight" with his (dominant) brother, it's generally play. You can tell which is Top Cat in your house by looking to see who gets to eat first if only one dish of food is presented to the pair, who gets to sit in the preferred spot (chair, sunny windowsill, etc.) and who gets evicted. After a few months of wrestling they generally sort this out between themselves.

As it is now, at 5 years old my wife's cat only picks a fight if he thinks we are either ignoring him or are favoring his brother excessively.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:23 PM on April 25, 2006

muddgirl wrote "'Mad Cat' face"

Ha. We call it the "Evil Cat Face" and it startled me the first time I saw my cat do it - jaws agape, eyes wild and ears laid back. He looked like a little black panther about to KILL. He generally does this when we are playing "Attack My Sock", just before he sinks his claws into my foot deep enough to draw blood. He's so cute when he tries to kill my sock.

"Evil Cat Face" sans growling/hissing might just be predatory instinct play, so take context into account.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:26 PM on April 25, 2006

They're playing.
posted by cellphone at 2:33 PM on April 25, 2006

We don't break up the fighting until someone screams or fur flies. Other than that, all bets are off.
posted by sugarfish at 7:26 PM on April 25, 2006

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