When you watch your cats interacting, pretend you’re watching a nature show about lions or tigers or leopards (and if you’ve never seen a TV show like that, look into it!). Sometimes the play/fights among the babies of the pride can get pretty rough. Now, I’ve never seen an animal parents break up a fight and I’m sure sometimes a youngster or two do get injured, so you don’t want to completely mimic an animal mom or dad, but this background knowledge can help you understand your cats a little more.
The reason baby leopards and lions, etc. play so roughly with one another is because this play is training them to hunt for food and protect themselves when they’re older. The cats in your house may not have to hunt for their meals any more, but this wild instinct is still in them. Cats are also very sensitive to social ranking, so play and fights allow them to establish that order and ultimately live peacefully with one another.
When fighting happens too often or becomes too aggressive, your cats can be injured, aggravated or depressed and they can even begin to lash out at you, your furniture, or develop other unpleasant habits (like spraying or not using their litter boxes). This usually happens due to the poor introduction of a new cat or kitten to an older cat’s territory. As you probably know, cats do have personalities and some, like some people, will never like one another, but that does not mean they cannot live together in peace in the same house.
So how do you know if you rushed your cat’s meet-and-greet? When kittens are playing together, they may bite and kick, but they’re having fun. You can tell because their ears are perked up and alert, their bodies will bounce around and their tails are relaxed. If one of your cats has their ears flattened all the way back on their head or their tail is rigid or their hair is stiff and standing up a bit, that cat is not having fun. Does this mean you should separate your cats whenever you see one of them posturing like this? Not necessarily, but it should be a warning sign to keep a close eye on their interaction at that moment.
What if you hear hissing, meowing or screeching? Well, sounds don’t always mean that your cats are fighting. After all, cats don’t use words, so all they have are sounds! And while hissing is usually meant as a warning, it can occur during play too. For example, one cat may hiss just to say they don’t like something the other cat is doing and if the offending cat stops, play will continue. I’ve read other people say that when your cats are fighting, you’ll know because it will be loud. But I always wondered how you’re supposed to know how loud is loud? Especially if you don’t really want it to get that bad! Well, basically, if you hear your cat’s getting louder than what they were before, pay attention! Given the other signs you have to watch out for, you should be able to put together a good idea of whether your cats are fighting or playing.
But what if you’re still unsure about whether your cats are playing or fighting? Maybe it’s their first play/fight session together. I suggest you make a loud noise (clapping or shaking a can of coins) or spray a squirt of water on them (don’t overdo it) so that they separate from one another and then watch their reactions after they’ve stopped. If one cat runs away and hides, it was probably a fight. If they both try to get back together, your cats were probably playing and confused as to why you made them stop (That is part of the reason why I said don’t overdo it before, you definitely do not want to punish your cats for playing; it will make them really confused and probably even more scared of one another and of you too!).
If your cats have a fight once and a while, make sure the loser always has a safe place to hide or rest. If one of your cats always has to be on the lookout for potential attacks, they will start to stress out and the fights will probably increase or at least never get better. But if your cats are fighting all the time, you may need to re-introduce them to one another all over again, a little slower than before. Make sure lots of treats are involved this time so they begin to associate the other cat with good things and end each introduction session on a good note. Before long, your cats will be happier and so will you!