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Home WHAT WE DO Humane Education Companion Animals Fact Sheets Avoiding Catty Misunderstandings: Play and Petting



We love and admire our cats for their ability to remain close to their wild ancestry. At the same time, our everyday interactions often ignore this very trait. Two common types of over- stimulation, play and petting, demonstrate how a better understanding of our cats natural behaviours can help us interact more peacefully.


Rubbed the wrong way

You're snuggled up in bed, immersed in a great novel, and gently stroking your cherished kitty. Suddenly, you feel your cat's pointy teeth piercing your hand. Looking up, you spot your toothy tigress sitting nonchalantly across the room.

What happened? Look to cat-to-cat interactions for an answer. Social grooming between cats is usually of short duration - which you unknowingly exceeded! Your cat likely gave you plenty of subtle warning signs before striking out, including dilated pupils, stiffening, twitching her tail, or even turning her head quickly as your hand reached a "forbidden" spot. Start paying attention and respond to your cat's signals to stop.

If your cat has a low threshold (most common among unneutered males) you may increase it (slowly) by pairing stroking with mealtime and treats. If she can handle three or four strokes calmly, complete the strokes, offer a treat and stroke once more before ending the session (slowly increasing the number of after-treat strokes). If your cat can hardly tolerate touching, stroke once or twice after you put her food bowl down each meal.

"Red card" for rough play

You're walking down the hall enjoying a peaceful moment when suddenly a flying, foot-snagging cat grabs a hold of your toe and takes a bite. What happened to your feline sweetie? Chances are your cat is simply practicing skills he would normally need for survival in the wild, such as chasing, stalking, swatting, scratching and biting. He may twitch his tail, flick his ears back and forth, freeze in a low crouch before pouncing, and/or wrap his front paws around your hand or feet while biting - body postures resembling those cats show when searching for or catching prey.

Playful "attacks" commonly occur when unsuspecting owners round a corner, move under the blankets, or come down the stairs, and can often be distinguished from aggressive encounters by a sideways hop or pounce, an arched back, a half open mouth (called the "play face") or silence (the absence of hissing, spitting or growling).

Despite the playful intentions of your cat it can result in scratches, inhibited bites (which don't break the skin) or serious injury (scratches and bites easily become infected). The most common play aggressors are cats less than two years of age, living in a one-cat household, and spending eight- to ten-hours each day home alone.

Tips and tricks to keep playtime interesting and save your fingers and toes :
Encouraging appropriate play

  • Channel your cat's energy into positive play by trying out some fun feline sports two to three times a day for three to 10 minutes each session.
  • Include daily interactive play with your cat using imitation kitty fishing poles, feather wands, catnip mice and bugs on a wire (keep them out of reach when your cat is not supervised).
  • Build an outdoor "entertainment centre" enclosure for your cat with perches, boxes and shelves to redirect your cat's energy.
  • If you can afford the additional costs, and have the time, consider adopting a young feline companion for your home-alone cat so he will have an outlet for his youthful energies (make sure the new cat has the same energy level).
  • Avoid rough play with your cat or encouraging him to bite your hands or feet during play (and make sure all family members comply).

Distracting and diverting "play attacks"

  • If you can predict when the attacks are likely to happen, toss a toy ahead of you to attract your cat's attention away from your feet.
  • If your attempts to distract and redirect your cat fail, withdraw all attention by walking to another room and closing the door long enough for him to calm down.
  • Avoid hitting, tapping or flicking your cat for rough play (or blocking him with your foot or running away). These tactics are likely to frighten him, intensify his play, or cause him to switch from play to aggression.
  • Be sure to thoroughly clean all bites and scratches and apply an antibiotic ointment. If you receive a bad bite, you should seek medical attention immediately.

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