Play Fight or Real Cat Fight: How to Tell the Difference

Cats in the game can get pretty rough and stumble and sometimes alert their parents with all the turning, rolling and clapping.

Most of the time, it’s just their little darlings who argue about a good time. Every now and then, however, cats end up in a pretty good dust full of flying fur and angry whines.

But sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference. Especially when the fight starts out as a round of tough play. One minute it’s fun and the next everyone’s grown up and mean.

As cat parents, how can we tell the difference? And is there any way to know when game fights turn into real fights?

@ cat_by_snap / Instagram

Diana Stoll has a lot of experience with cats and their different behaviors as the practice manager of the Red Barn Animal Hospital. She offers an explanation of whether a cat fight is just a game or real business.

Play fights are part of healthy cat interaction

As kittens, cats learn from interactions with their littermates. While Mom watches over the kitten play, Diane explains, “You learn how to communicate with other cats and that claws and teeth can cause pain.”

@ catlives9 / Instagram

Kittens got caught up in their throwing opportunities pretty quickly, learning the subtle nuances of what a cat’s body can do. As kittens for cats get older, “Play fights continue to be part of the daily activities of an adult cat in multiple cat households as a starting point for exercise and socialization.”

But how can we tell when the game turns into real battles?

Check out these signs of playing versus fighting:

Body positioning

When playing, cats lean their bodies against each other to deliver a good slap on the paw. But Diane reveals, “Cats with arched backs and pelts in a reclined position are ready for a fight.”

Ear positioning can also signal intentions. “The ears of kittens ready for a fight are turned back and sometimes pressed against their heads.” Playful cat ears usually stay in their usual upright position.

@ phoebe_and_flynt / Instagram

The way cats look at each other during a rumble can tell you if it’s a fight or just a game. When cats are angry at each other, they stare at each other intently with the laser focus that can sometimes alert us.

The aggressor

While cats are playing, they take turns being the “tyrant”. You can see the roles changing between the cats as they argue. In a real fight, a cat remains the aggressive dominant.

@ get_laughing_cats / Instagram


Biting is part of the game, but there’s a difference between the game’s mouth noises and the ones that are designed to cause damage. Watch for screams of pain when cats use teeth while playing. Painful bites mean that the situation has changed from game to aggression.


Game time is generally calm when it comes to singing. Cats sometimes meow and make noise during fun fights, but cats who are really involved in a battle of aggression speak with yelp, growl, and hiss.

@ meowcursed / Instagram

What to do if cats are really fighting

If you find that your cats are in a real fight, break them up by clapping, stomping your feet, or making noise. But be careful! “Never put your hands in the middle of a fight – your hands will most likely bleed.”

Once the cats are untangled, separate them by keeping them in separate rooms or spaces. Diane also recommends, “Throw a towel over one of these to pick it up and move it to a separate room.”

Do not yell or punish the cats for fighting because “Punishment can serve to increase their animosity towards one another.”

@ coco_theo_rocco / Instagram

Playfighting can look threatening, but when you’ve determined that only the cats are having fun, let them move on. These good time battles are an important part of being a cat!

Please SHARE to pass this story on to a friend or family member.

H / T:
Feature Image: @ cat_by_snap / Instagram


Related Articles