Have you ever worried if the game between your cats becomes too difficult? A new study published in Scientific reports studied play and fighting in cats.
Their goal was to use simple behaviors that anyone could observe to determine what was play and what could lead to fights.
This is important because the consequences of fighting include injury to animals and humans. At worst, you may even have to relocate one of your cats if they don’t get along.
Categorize cat “fights”
The study, led by Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Slovakia and the University of Lincoln, UK, analyzed 105 videos of interactions between 210 cats.
The research team then developed an ethogram – a list of specific behaviors used in the study of animal behavior. These were divided into six groups:
- Inactive: head and body stationary and in a specific position, e.g. crouching
- Wrestling: cats in physical contact with wrestling movements
- Pursuit: a cat runs after it or another cat runs away
- Other interactive activities: e.g. grooming, approaching, lifting the fur on the back
- Non-interactive: activity directed at themselves or an inanimate object, e.g., drinking, licking
- Vocalization: for example, growling, hissing, meowing
Each video was analyzed to identify which of these behaviors were exhibited by each cat. Each interaction was then statistically analyzed to determine which behaviors appeared together in clusters.
From there, the researchers separated the videos into three categories of interactions.
Mischievous: included 40% of the cats in the videos and included wrestling and a lack of vocalization.
Agonistic: agonistic behaviors are all social behaviors that include threat, aggression and submission. Cats in this group were vocalizing and had recurrent bouts of inactivity; 32% of cats in the sample landed in this group.
Intermediate: this group comprised 28% cats and was more closely associated with the playful group than with the agonistic group. The cats in this group interacted for long periods of time with breaks in between.
As a cross-check, these behavioral categories observed from the videos matched quite well with how the four authors, experts in feline behavior, described each interaction.
What does this tell you about your cats’ play?
If your cats are struggling, they are most likely playing. When there is friction between cats in a multi-cat household, they tend to avoid physical contact. Instead, they will use offensive or defensive maneuvers that do not involve prolonged direct contact, such as slapping.
If your cats are vocalizing and hunting between periods of inactivity (like crouching), they are most likely fighting.
Vocalization is a particularly important cue here for aggressive rather than playful interaction.
Chasing is OK if it’s mutual, but if a cat is chasing or a cat is running away, it’s not so positive.
The middle group is the trickiest. It contains elements of both playful and agonistic behaviors, although it is more closely related to the playful group than to the agonistic group.
This suggests that the game could become agonistic, depending on what happens during the interaction.
In particular, the authors observed frequent pauses in the interaction, which may allow cats to reassess their partner’s interest in play and avoid escalation from play to aggression.
Great fights are easy to spot
This study is the first to apply a scientific approach to cat behaviors that anyone can identify, describing three types of interactions to help identify between play and fighting in cats.
We all know when cats are really fights, but the main strength is in crafting examples in between – where it could be OK, but could also escalate.
The study focused on obvious behaviors that anyone can observe, but cats can also be quite subtle.
They also use facial expression, ear and tail placement, and pheromones to communicate. (These subtle cues can be just as important in telling the difference between what’s playing and what’s fighting.
If your cats are truly best friends (sleep in close contact and share food and toys), occasional agonistic play is okay.
But if your cats don’t get along as well, you may need to watch for signs of agonistic behaviors. Tension between cats is not always obvious but can affect their physical and mental health.
If you’re not sure if your cats really get along, seeking help early from a cat behavior expert can prevent a cat-astrophe.
Susan Hazel, Associate Professor, School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Adelaide and Julia Henning, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.