Friday, 16 October 2015

Behaviour focus: inappropriate play

In this week’s behaviour focus post, Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow explains why a cat may show misdirected predatory play behaviour.

Why does my cat attack people’s legs when they walk past? 

If you've read any of my other behaviour focus blog posts in this series, you've probably guessed what the first thing I'm going say is! It doesn't matter what the behaviour problem is or what change in behaviour you've noticed in your cat, the first port of call is always the vets to rule out medical problems. This is vital as behaviour measures can be useless or even dangerously mask the problem if medical conditions are not addressed. As always, describe the behaviours you are seeing and in what context, rather than being tempted to explain why the cat is showing the behaviour. For example, does the cat grab people’s leg with their paws and/or are they biting? If the cat is biting, what pressure does the cat use and is it breaking the skin? What facial expressions and body postures does the cat show before, during and after going for someone’s legs? It is really easy to miss these signs and many people feel that this behaviour is out of blue, random or unprovoked.

If there’s just one thing you take away from this post (other than the importance of getting a vet check and qualified behaviourist to help), it is that cats are not random. Everything happens for a reason. It is just that it is not usually obvious what that is! So look out for the position of your cat’s ears and whether their pupils are constricted or dilated. These all help to piece together the underlying emotional state of the cat and point towards the underlying reason/s for the behaviour. It is really useful to keep a diary to document everything to look for patterns in context and behaviour.

Ginger cat playing with mouse toy
Image by Exeter Adoption Centre
A common problem that many people experience is inappropriate play behaviour. One of the reasons it is so frequently seen is that so many people play with kittens in particular using their fingers and toes as part of a game. While it may seem fun while the kitten is young, the appeal quickly wears off as the kitten grows into an adult and becomes more painful. This is in effect a learned response whereby a kitten or young cat learns that this is a good way of interacting with people. During normal development, kittens start to develop social play with each other at four weeks of age, as a way of practising hunting behaviours. Between five to six weeks of age, kittens will show hiding and searching behaviours that are directed either at another kitten or an object in their environment. Direct object play starts a little later and is particularly noticeable during seven-eight weeks of age. To start with, this is directed to all sorts of objects; but as they develop, their mothers provide opportunities to direct their behaviour towards appropriate prey items. Object play helps kittens to develop their eye-paw coordination. At this age, it also develops their balance and coordination as they become more mobile. Social play, including chasing behaviour, continues until it peaks at approximately 12-14 weeks.

Cat playing with feather toy
Photo: CP library
Often this type of predatory aggression appears as ‘ambushing’ where the cat lies in wait, ready to attack as soon as someone walks by. To avoid this, don’t encourage your cat to play with your hair, fingers or toes. For a cat already showing misdirected predatory play behaviour, identify the common places that the cat uses as a launch pad for the predatory attacks and block these areas off. Ensure all members of the household wear thick clothing, particularly covering the ankles, legs and arms. These can gradually be weaned off over time as the cat learns to direct their behaviour to more appropriate play items. Feet can be protected by wearing thick boots indoors. If the cat tries to pounce on them, try to keep perfectly still and very quiet, so there is nothing exciting for them to chase. Also avoid picking the cat up when in this playful state. Where possible, get another person to distract the cat with a toy, so you can escape. Provide a variety of toys, such as ping pong balls and fishing rod toys to direct this behaviour towards – although remember don’t leave the cat unsupervised with toys which might be shredded and/or eaten.

Feline predatory play with feather toy
Photo: CP library
Cats showing this type of behaviour often don’t have many other things to do in their environment. They must be provided with lots of appropriate things to attack as this provides great mental stimulation and physical exercise – there are many suitable toys available. It is particularly important to allow the cat to regularly ‘catch and attack’ the toy to help prevent frustration and release happy hormones – endorphins. Time should be spent playing with the kitten or cat but the games should be distant from the body – for example, using ‘fishing rod’ type toys. Rotate the toys often to keep the games interesting. Keep your cat amused with toys like these, climbing towers or activity centres. They can be bought or made – a cardboard box with holes cut into it or a ball of tin foil can be perfectly adequate.

Cats are frequently attracted to high pitched toys and the hunting instinct is often triggered by movement, so toys that move such as fishing rod toys with feathers are a useful way to provide pet cats with this outlet, as well as great fun for you too. Short games of a minute or two throughout the day are best to mimic the cat’s natural hunting activity. Cats are generally most active during dawn and dusk (as this is normally when their prey is most active), so it can be useful to have extra play sessions during these times to use up that extra energy. Cats in the wild spend a lot of their time on short, frequent hunting expeditions. In comparison, our domestic cats are given food bowls, so a meal doesn't take long to eat and doesn't make use of their great senses. Create interest at meal times by hiding food around the house for your cat to search out, make a pyramid out of cardboard toilet roll tubes and hide food in the tubes, or use a puzzle ball.

Inappropriate play behaviour is just one of the many possibilities to explain this type of behaviour and often it could be a combination of factors. If you are experiencing a problem with your cat, please get a referral from your vet to a suitably qualified behaviourist such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (


  1. I read that when your young cat is too rough playing with you that you should squeal and walk away which is the way litter mates respond to a kitten that's being too rough. I did that with my cat when he was under a year old and he has learned that my hands are tender! So now he might still pounce on my hands but claws are always retracted and nips are very gentle and I don't remember having a scratch from him - whether it's play or irritation and he does both. When it's irritation (ears back tail twitching) I know to leave him alone. So we've both learned from each other about appropriate play. My other cat, who came at the same time and is smaller and female hasn't learned that because she didn't attack my hands and so I didn't do the squeal and walk away thing with her, so I would never dream of putting my hands in reach of her during play!

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