Managing Rough Play

posted on Monday, January 22, 2018 in Pet Help

Managing Rough Play

Kittens and cats need to play! It provides them with opportunities to practice skills they would perform naturally; they just have to be appropriate with humans.

Play-motivated aggressive behaviors are when your kitten/cat moves from a play motivated emotional state and uses its claws, teeth (or both) when over-aroused. This behavior can be common in young, active cats less than two years of age, and/or single-cat households.

If they switch to predatory behavior, it’s no longer play or aggression - it’s a hard-wired natural hunting instinct; remember, you are not your cat's food.

Kittens like to explore new areas and investigate anything that moves. They may bat at, pounce on, and bite objects (including humans) to learn about it and its reaction to these behaviors. Kittens learn how to inhibit (make softer) their bite from their litter mates and their mother. A kitten that is separated from its family too early may play more roughly than one that has had the benefit of learning “the rules" from its mother/litter mates.

Humans can create behavior problems by playing inappropriately with a young kitten, using their hands and/or feet instead of toys. This kitten is liable to learn that rough play with people is acceptable and this is one of the worst things someone can do with their cat. This type of behavior is not necessarily aggression; because this cat has learned that toes and fingers are acceptable toys, they've learned that this is just another form of play. Unfortunately this is not what most people want from their cat and the cat is the one who pays the price in the long run. In most cases, it is possible to teach your kitten/cat that rough play is not acceptable behavior.

Encouraging Acceptable Behavior

So what do we do if this behavior is happening? The best thing to do is redirect your kitten's/cat's inappropriate biting behavior onto acceptable objects like toys. Drag a toy along the floor to encourage them to pounce on it and not you, or throw a toy away from your kitten/cat to give her even more exercise chasing the toy. Some will even bring the toy back to be thrown again. A Ping Pong ball can be a great toy to use because it is lightweight, will bounce and roll all over, keeping your feline entertained for a long time. (Note: If you have a dog, be careful of these balls, as dogs will tend to crunch them.)

A stuffed toy about the same size as your feline can make a great play mate as they can wrestle with it, grab it with both front feet, bite it, and kick it with her back feet; doing what cats do with each other, especially when they’re young. It's also one of the ways they try to play with human feet and hands, so it's important to provide this type of alternative play target. Encourage play with a "wrestling toy" by rubbing it against your feline's belly when she wants to play roughly. Be sure to get your hand out of the way as soon as she accepts the toy. Give this fun toy a try: Pet Candy Bed Buddy.

Remember an important factor with redirection is consistency. Don't do it off and on as this only confuses your feline and that helps no-one.

Kittens/young cats need a lot of playtime.

Try to set up three or four consistent times during the day to initiate play. If you don’t provide those outlets, your kitten will finds its own fun. Teaching them the playtime rules will help them understand they don’t have to be the one to initiate play by pouncing on you.

Here’s an idea, you could get another cat! They can play with each other and teach each other appropriate behaviors. Bonus!

Discouraging Unacceptable Behavior

You need to set the rules for your kitten's behavior from the very first day; if there are no rules, your kitten will make its own. Prevention is easier than cure. Every person your cat comes in contact with, including your friends, should reinforce these rules. For example, your kitten can't be expected to learn that it's OK to play rough with Dad, but not with the baby.

Withdrawing Attention for Nipping

If your kitten/cat starts to play roughly, stop the play. If the distraction and redirection techniques explained earlier don't seem to be working, the most drastic thing you can do is to withdraw all attention when they start playing roughly. Why should your cat get what it wants when you don’t get what you want? We're meant to be the smart ones here aren’t we? So eventually they'll figure out how far they can go if you keep this limit consistent. Limits should be set at a point that the whole family are happy with. It’s difficult for your kitten to adjust play styles if someone teaches rough play, then someone else says that’s not allowed. Let’s be fair.

One of the best ways to withdraw attention is to walk away into another room, and close the door long enough for your feline to calm down. If you pick them up to put in another room, you maybe inadvertently be rewarding them with your touch. You should be the one to leave the room. Note: None of these methods will be effective unless you also give your kitten/cat acceptable outlets for their energy, by playing with them regularly using appropriate toys.

What Not To Do

Things like a tap, flick, or even hitting your kitten/cat for rough play are almost always guaranteed to backfire. They could become afraid of you, your hands, or could interpret those flicks as playful moves by you and play even more roughly as a result. Picking up your kitten/cat to put her into a "timeout" could inadvertently reinforce their behavior; did they do the rough stuff to get you to pick them up? Careful they're not training you. Squirt bottles are not worth the trouble as they can make your feline afraid of you because the only time the nasty “spray thing” happens is when you’re around.


When aggression is misplaced or excessive and causing harm to you or other animals it’s not acceptable. This is a very real and serious issue and you should seek help immediately from a behavior specialist at the first signs of any aggressive display. Be sure to keep the aggressive cat confined so it cannot keep practicing the unwanted behavior until you can get professional help. Be sure to thoroughly clean all bites/scratches and consult your physician, as cat scratches/bites can easily become infected.