Cats love to play and when they are kittens, it is an important part of their development. It allows them to work on their physical coordination and also learn problem-solving skills. They learn to interact with others of their own species and while it may look rough, this is normal. The mock aggression between litter mates is their way of learning how to behave around other cats. However when this aggression is focused on a human, it can lead to problems and concerns.
Type of play
Cats engage into two different types of play – one is solitary and the other is social. Solitary play involves playing with their toys and anything from skeins of wool to paper bags and boxes. Social play involves other cats, animals or people but when aimed at the latter, injuries can be incurred because cat scratches and bites can easily become infected and can be painful. This is not the aim of the cat, simply the natural by-product of the social play.
Sometimes true aggression does surface and knowing how to react to it when it does can stop a lot of problems. Cats can become aggressive when they are frightened by a sight, scent or sound, particularly when outdoors. Most of the time, cat aggression will be part of play but their body language can help you spot the difference. When a cat is playing, they will have their mouths half open and pounce or hop sideways with the back arched. It also tends to be without accompanying noises but when they are really angry, they will growl, spit and hiss.
Reducing rough play
If you feel their rough play is becoming a problem, then there are steps to take to help reduce it. Firstly, make sure they have access to plenty of different toys with small ones such as balls and fake mice being favourites. They can stalk and pounce on them while toys such as feathers on flexible rods are great to dangle around and let them chase.
Producing new items even if it a paper bag or box allows them to have something new to investigate and attack so they don't get bored with their toys.
Dedicate some time each day to play with your cat, at least ten minutes. During this time, don't encourage them to attack your hands or feet but direct their attention to a dangling toy or something you throw for them. If they get too rough, then have a time out – leave the room and stop playing but don't try to put them in another room as this could lead to more scratches and bites.
If you cat loves to ambush and scratch at your feet when you pass, carry a toy on a string in front of you so that their attention is drawn to the toy, not your feet.
Sometimes it can an idea to have more than one cat. By having a playmate for your kitten, they can use up their aggression on each other, rather than on you.
Never physically punish your cat for scratching or biting you as this can actually make them rougher and more aggressive, turning play into real anger.