Feline friend or feud? Research demonstrates certain behaviours indicate whether domestic cats are playing or fighting 

Behavioural scientists expand the cat literature by investigating how the nature of feline interactions can be determine from easily identifiable behaviours

Isabel Lamb
14th March 2023
Image credit: Unsplash
Are cat interactions playful or aggressive? Writing in Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy, Slovakia and the University of Lincoln say they have been able to distinguish between behavioural interactions to determine whether a pair of felines are playing or fighting.  

It can often be difficult to discern between incidents of rough play and aggressive, agnostic interactions between cats, with one often being mistaken for the other. When aggressive conflicts arise between cats living in the same household welfare can be negatively impacted, with inter-cat conflicts being a known major source of stress for domestic cats. Veterinary and Behavioural literature is also often unclear as to how play is defined, with disagreement on an exact definition of play between different researchers. Research has also failed to address how play is distinguished from agnostic behaviours, an aspect of cat interactions that is likely of importance for ensuring positive cat welfare. 

Researchers analysed 105 YouTube or personal videos of cat interactions that were sent in by participating cat owners. Initial analysis of 30% of the videos allowed researchers to identify six behavioural categories, including wrestling (where cats appear to physically struggle with one another), chasing (where one cat runs after the other) and vocalizations such as growling or hissing. The behavioural categories chosen were those consisting of overt, whole-body behaviours and movements rather than subtle behavioural signs such as isolated movement of the ears.  

YouTube: An example of two cats chasing one another.

 The researchers watched all the videos, recording the frequency and duration for each occurrence of a behavioural category. The emotional states of cats involved in interactions were then assessed by four experts from the field of animal behaviour who classified interactions as appearing to be playful, indicating a positive emotional state, agnostic, indicating a negative emotional state, or intermediate, indicating a mixed emotional state.  

Statistical analysis revealed three clusters that encompassed six behavioural categories. Each behavioural cluster overlapped with one of the expert classifications. Certain behaviours were observed to occur more often in playful interactions and other behaviours in agnostic interactions, suggesting different combinations of behaviours are indicative of either positive, playful interactions or negative, agnostic interactions.  

Behaviours that indicated an agnostic, hostile interaction included vocalizations, chasing, recurring interactivity (including threatening poses and offensive/defensive behaviours), and periods of prolonged inactivity. Wrestling was identified as playfulness, but this was dependent on the duration and level of contact involved. Agnostic interactions involve minimal direct contact; therefore, prolonged and mutual wrestling is unlikely to be hostile.  

Behaviours that indicated agnostic, hostile interactions included vocalizations, chasing, recurring interactivity [...] and periods of prolonged inactivity

Chasing can also occur in playful interactions, but observing the nature of this behaviour is needed to determine its behavioural categorisation. Play behaviour should be mutual, often involving role reversal and intermittent bouts of play, with no cat dominating the other. Increased chasing may indicate a shift in motivation by one of the cats and be a sign that they no longer wish to interact and are running away from the conflict. This chasing behaviour, therefore, becomes unbalanced and predatory, with the chasing cat using the other as ‘prey’.   

Intermediate interactions include features of both playful and agnostic interactions. Although specific behaviours that formed intermediate interactions were not detailed, they seemed to feature uni-directional pats and hissing, non-reciprocated chasing, attempts to end play, belly up behaviour, and face offs.  

Play behaviour should be mutual, often involving role reversal and intermittent bouts of play, with no cat dominating the other

It should be acknowledged that adult cat and kitten play may differ, for example kittens display more wrestling and less vocalizations compared to their adult counterparts. Caution should, therefore, be taken so as not to associate cat behaviour with kittens, as this can lead to misinterpretation of overall welfare.  

Whilst the study identified behaviours that are easy to observe, it failed to convey information regarding the subtleties of cat behaviour that can be indicative of their emotional state. Ear, tail and eye position have been associated with frustration and negative emotions. However, identification of these subtle behaviours typically requires a trained observer to scrutinise videos of interactions, thus making it difficult to identify these features outside of a research setting. By selecting only overt behaviours, the researchers aimed to identify behaviours that can be easily used by laypeople to determine the nature of cat interactions.  

It is advised that if you witness agnostic interactions, cats should be separated for a brief period to avoid feline stress and improve mental welfare. If you have long term concerns about a cat’s welfare or relationships with other cats within the household, advice should be sought from veterinarians or from animal behaviour specialists.  

Access to the full article can be gained below:

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-26121-1

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