How to Tell If Cats Are Playing or Fighting – Catmart
Behavior

How to Tell If Cats Are Playing or Fighting

Cats love to play fight, but this puts you in an awkward position as an owner. Are your cats play fighting or fighting for real, and how do you tell?

How can you tell if cats are fighting or playing? Body language and vocalizations make it obvious. Cats that are really fighting will have arched backs, their fur will be standing on end, and they will have puffed up ‘bottle brush’ tails. They will hiss in anger and yelp loudly when hurt. Play fighting cats make almost no noise at all. It’s highly unlikely that two cats which are normally friendly will have a real cat fight. To break up a cat fight, don’t use your hands. Try to separate the pair with a broom and put them in separate rooms.

The guide below first looks at some generic ways to tell whether cats are playing or fighting: figuring out who the pair are and why they might fight, how much aggression is displayed, how the cat fight is structured, and what kind of noises cats make when they fight for real. It will also cover the body language that fighting cats display, from bottle brush tails and fur on end to the stance that the aggressor and defender will take.

How to Tell If Cats Are Fighting or Playing

Cats frequently play fight. When they’re young, they do so to learn how to fight for real. When they’re older, they will still play fight occasionally, but for fun.

The problem is that you may struggle to tell whether your cats are fighting for real or only pretending. If they’re pretending, then they’re only having fun. But if your cats are having a real cat fight, they could seriously injure each other. A serious bite or scratch could cause an infection and even kill your cat.

That’s what the list below is for. There are lots of ways to tell a real cat fight from play.

When you think about it, it makes sense. Both play fighting and real fighting serve a purpose in cat interactions. Each cat therefore has to communicate that it’s only play fighting, otherwise the other cat might misunderstand. The same applies in reverse.

1) Who Is The Fight With?

outdoor cat
Two cats which are strangers are more likely to fight than to play fight.

Perhaps the best way to tell whether a cat fight is real or not is to determine which cats are fighting.

Let’s say you have two cats that get along great. They don’t have a problem stealing each others’ food, they don’t pester each other over territory, and they’re generally calm. If you notice these cats ‘fighting’, then it’s almost certain that they’re only playing.

That’s because cat fights very rarely happen over a single issue in an otherwise perfect relationship. Rather, serious fights are a culmination over territory disputes and similar issues. The cats develop ill feeling for each other over time; they may have small spats of hissing and threatening, and after many of these, finally have a big fight. Alternatively, one cat may bully the other and cause frequent fights.

If the two cats that are fighting are strangers, then it’s less likely that the fight will be a play fight. Cats are mistrustful of other cats they don’t know. That’s because the cats that housecats are descended from are solitary creatures. Your cat is therefore more likely to fight with a stranger cat than play with it right off the bat (although what’s more likely than either scenario is for them to ignore each other!)

That being said, cats that live together often don’t get along. So, if you have two cats that fight often, it’s very unlikely that they are only play fighting.

2) Little Cats Being Aggressive Towards Big Cats

Kittens and younger cats love play fighting. Because they aren’t fighting for real, they will play fight with cats smaller than they are, the same size, or much bigger—it doesn’t matter. You will therefore frequently see kittens sneaking up on and pouncing on their mothers, or other bigger cats they live with.

A small cat would never do this to start a real fight. That’s because even slight size differences can mean the smaller cat receives significant injury.

3) Aggression

This might seem like too simple an answer, but real cat fights are very aggressive and can be frightening to watch! When one cat attacks another for real, it doesn’t hold back, and fur will quite literally fly. The aggressor will continue advancing on the threatened cat, either until the aggressor leaps, or the defender lashes out. They will then grab hold of each other and thrash around very fast, with clumps of fur coming out of the coats of each cat, but particularly the defender. They can also give each other severe wounds like deep scratches or bites around the body, or to the face.

This is a far cry from how a play fight looks. Play fights are noticeably calmer, and never result in clumps of fur being ripped out of the cats’ coats. They don’t grapple ferociously, although they may grapple and roll around together quietly.

4) Fight Structure

Cat fighting is structured. They fight in a consistent way which is easy to spot.

Fights typically begin when one cat threatens another and won’t back down. The aggressor will continue approaching the defender even though the defender clearly doesn’t like it. The aggressor may get close enough to severely invade the defender’s personal space, to the point where their faces are almost touching. They may stare at each other for an extended period of time, making the noises described above.

These periods of tension are then followed by outbursts of sudden violence. Either the defender will lash out, or the aggressor will leap at it, each making a very loud noise. They will then go into the grappling phase of the fight, where each tries to win an advantage over the other. They will bite each other and wrap their arms around each other, and kick with their back legs. This phase can be over after just a few seconds if one gets the clear upper hand, but if they are evenly matched, it can last for a while.

They will eventually release, and the pair will then switch back to their original threatening behavior. One may then try to run away, often chased by the other.

Play fighting is less structured. There is more chasing involved. The playful cat will approach the other cat before running away. While sometimes the defensive cat will sit still, it may chase the aggressor as it runs.

5) Vocalizations

cat kidney issues
This cat is hissing.

Cats communicate with their voices, just like we do. Cats miaow to get your attention, or hiss to tell you to go away. In the same way, cats will make vocalizations during real fights that indicate they aren’t playing. There are lots of different noises that cats make when they fight for real.

At the beginning of the fight, there are two noises that you’re likely to hear. These are yowls and hissing. One or both cats will start by yowling at the other one: “Yow, yow… yowwww…”  These sounds will come to a crescendo when the pair finally start to fight. What will often happen is that one will be yowling and the noise will get louder and louder until it leaps at the other. They will also occasionally make loud hissing sounds, which obviously mean “Go away!”

The nature of the noises will then change when they are grappling. Both cats will start making noises that sound like tiny, high-pitched roars: “Rarrr!” These noises will be repeated throughout the fight, with intermittent hisses and spits. One or both may also make loud yelping noises when they get hurt. When the pair break up again, they will go back to yowling. The louder the hiss or growl, the angrier the cat is.

When cats play fight, though, they make almost no noise at all. This is perhaps the clearest difference between play fights and real fights.

6) Reciprocity

Reciprocity means give and take. When cats play fight, they take turns with each other. One will pounce at the other, and bat and kick at it, and then run away. Then, the second cat will pounce at the first one. They won’t take turns perfectly—one may pounce a couple of times at another without reply—but they will both have a turn at being the aggressor.

That’s because of the purpose of play. Cats learn to play fight so that they can get better at hunting and defending themselves. They therefore need to learn both to pounce and to fight off threats. They learn this when they’re kittens and take the behavior with them into adulthood.

When cats fight for real, though, it’s possible that one cat will be bullying the other. One will consistently be the aggressor, and will display aggressive body language, while the other will be defensive. This will be consistent both within the context of each fight, and over the course of time, i.e. one will pick fights with the other rather than the other way around.

7) Real Biting vs. Fake Biting

During play fighting, the pair will infrequently bite each other. If they do bite, they will be gentle play bites, or at most, warning bites.

If you’ve ever been playing with your cat and it’s bitten you, and it didn’t hurt that much, that was a play bite; if you’ve ever been bitten by a cat that’s mad at you, you’ll know there’s a clear difference.

A play-fighting cat doesn’t want to hurt the other cat, so won’t bite down so hard. It’s like the difference between playfully punching your friend on the arm, and giving somebody an uppercut. You might hurt your friend’s arm a little by punching it, but you rein in how hard you punch, and your friend knows that you aren’t really threatening to punch them hard. Play fighting cats do the same thing with gentle bites.

8) Real Scratches vs. Fake Scratches

There are two variables to your cat’s scratch. The first is how hard the cat strikes with the paw, and the second is whether its claws are sheathed or unsheathed. A cat that’s fighting for real will use its paws and claws as weapons, while a play fighting cat is more likely to bat gently without unsheathing its claws.

Again, if you’ve ever been scratched by your cat, you’ll know the difference. When your cat is playing with your hand, it will bat it without its claws out. If it does have its claws out, it will retract them quickly. But when you’ve been scratched for real, your cat will rake at you with its claws out and try to hurt you with them. Your cat does the same thing when it fights with another cat.

You may not be able to see whether your cat’s claws are out when it’s play fighting. What you can see, though, is how the other cat reacts to being scratched. If it yelps and yowls in pain, then the other cat may be scratching it for real.

9) After The Fight

A real cat fight will be over once the defender manages to get away from the attacker. This can take several ’rounds’ of fighting, because the aggressor may chase the defender when it runs away. The defender will retreat somewhere far away, lick its wounds, and avoid the aggressor like the plague.

Play fighting resolves in a completely different way. There are no wounds to lick, and the pair won’t avoid each other. Play fights often end with grooming, as if each cat is saying “Don’t worry—I was only joking.” This grooming often begins with little warning, so one cat might pounce on another, but instead of attacking, it starts licking its opponent! The play fight then gradually winds down.

Cat Body Language When Fighting

As well as communicating through sound, cats also communicate through body language. The importance of body language is often overlooked, both in people and in pets. There are several body language signs that a cat is fighting which are detailed below.

Stance

Cats that are fighting for real have an unusual stance. The aggressor and the defender will usually have different stances:

  • The aggressor will be standing taller than the defender
  • The aggressor’s body will be pointed towards the defender, while the defender may be facing it, side-on, or turned away
  • The aggressor’s face may be close to that of the defender, much closer than two cats would normally be

You can tell from looking at it that the defender would rather be anywhere else in the world, but at the same time, may need to defend itself. It may therefore be side-on or facing away, but have its paws in a position where it could easily strike. The reason for this makes sense if you think from your cat’s perspective. Your cat wants to be ready to lash out with its claws when it gets the opportunity. But it wants to keep its face and head far away to avoid injury.

Hair on End

When cats are angry, they puff themselves up. Their coat stands on end. This makes the cat look bigger. The purpose of trying to look bigger is to intimidate the other cat. The bigger the cat, the stronger it is, and the less likely another cat is to attack it.

You may have heard that when you’re attacked by a bear, you try to make yourself look as big and loud as possible, and this is the same principle. Cats don’t have the best eyesight; they’re good at seeing at night, but not so good at seeing close detail like we are. This means they can more easily fall for behaviors like these.

Most aspects of cat body language during fighting relate to looking as big and threatening as possible.

Big, Brushy Tail Pointed Upright

Since there is lots of fur on your cat’s tail, it’s a useful tool in this context. When your cat puffs its tail up and holds it directly upright it makes the cat look a lot bigger overall.

You can tell which cat is the aggressor in the fight by looking at its tail. A cat that wants to attack another cat will hold its tail upright. A cat that’s frightened of another cat will still have a bushy tail, but the tail will be held low.

This is distinct to when your cat holds up its tail to greet you. When a cat is happy to see you, it will trot towards you with its tail held upright, but not with its fur standing on end. This is a friendly signal rather than an intimidating one.

Arched Back

Another way that cats make themselves look big is by arching their backs. This is often done in conjunction with the tail being held upright. The middle of the back will be up high, and the base of the tail and the head down lower.

During play fighting, the cat may assume a similar position. Play fighting cats will sometimes pounce at each other, and when pouncing, they display a similar kind of body language, except only the head is held low. It’s when the arched back is seen in conjunction with other body language and behaviors that it becomes an obvious threatening display.

Ear Position

cat with ears back
This is an example of a cat with its ears back. Its other body language doesn’t suggest that it’s in a fight, though.

During a real fight, both cats will keep their ears bent well backwards.

Cats have an excellent sense of hearing. Part of what makes their hearing better than ours is that they can rotate their ears. This helps them locate where a sound is coming from, which makes cats better at hunting. While cats’ ears evolved this way purely so that they could hunt better, they also use this adaptation to display body language.

When a cat holds its ears backwards, it can indicate several things. It can mean that the cat is slightly annoyed, feeling defensive, or even feeling aggressive. It’s when this behavior is seen in conjunction with others that you can figure out exactly what your cat is feeling.

How to Break Up a Cat Fight

You should look to separate the cats as soon as possible. That’s because a stray claw or tooth could cause serious damage. Your cat’s eyes are vulnerable in particular, and just one scratch to the cornea can develop into an ulcer, and then into swelling and loss of the eye (plus some big vet’s bills).

However, separating the pair isn’t easy. Here are some hints and tips to help.

Don’t Use Your Hands

You may be tempted to leap in and push the pair apart, almost like you’re separating your friends who are fighting on a drunken night out.

Don’t.

Your cats are still in high-intensity fighting mode. If you try to push them apart, grab one or both of the cats by the scruff of the neck, or put your hands anywhere near them, they will attack you. And if you’ve never been attacked by an angry cat, only one that’s playing, you’re in for a treat—real cat bites and deep scratches hurt. They draw blood. What’s more, they’re highly likely to get infected unless treated, so could result in doctor’s fees.

This doesn’t mean you can’t separate the pair. You can try using a broom to get in between them, and push one away from the other. This may take a few tries, so be patient, and don’t be tempted to hit either of the cats; that will only make them dislike you.

Separate The Pair Into Different Rooms

While it’s easier said than done, do all you can to get one of the cats into another room. When the cats are separated, they will cool down quickly. Cat fights are typically over territory, so with the pair separated, they should become calmer. Even just putting something in between them that they can’t see through would cool them down a little.

Don’t reintroduce the pair too quickly. While the cats may appear calm, they will still fight unless the underlying cause of the fighting is corrected.

Address The Cause of The Fighting

Cats fight over territory more than anything else. Even if you moved into a new, bigger house, the pair would still fight; so what can you do?

As it turns out, you have a few options. One is to provide both cats with their own small space. That means giving each cat its own bed in its own part of the house. The more each cat sleeps in its own bed, the more its pheromonal scent congregates there, giving it its own distinct part of the home. This may not work since cats don’t always use the beds we buy for them, but if they do, then this may be enough to stop the pair fighting.

You should also stop feeding the two in the same place. Having the pair feed in the same place encourages them to fight. The bigger and stronger cat will want to bully the other, so it can have access to its food. You should feed them in different rooms, and at the same time, to stop this happening.

Unfortunately, even if you take every step available to you, it may not be enough. That’s because cats are naturally antisocial. Housecats are bred from a cat species that lives a solitary life, not one that lives as part of a pride, so they will always fight over territory. That’s especially the case for indoor cats which can’t even get outside to get away from each other. So, if your cats keep fighting constantly, your only option may be to separate them for good and find them separate homes.

Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run Catmart, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I'm not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I'm either spending time with my cats or my other half... Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!

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