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Playful aggression (the mugger in your cat-basket)

Playful aggression is very common in young cats, particularly in kittens under two years old. For cats playful aggression is a normal part of growing up. It allows the kitten to develop its skills at hunting and stalking prey. In the wild, these skills would be essential for a cat's survival; so young cats practice by pouncing on and biting any moving object as if it were prey. Two cats of a similar age will play together, madly chasing each other around the house. In a single-cat households, it is often the human who ends up as the prey. Playful attacks might blitz an unsuspecting person coming down the stairs, getting out of the bathtub, rounding a corner or even moving under the bedcovers while sleeping. During these playful attacks, bites are controlled and rarely break the skin. But playful aggression can be frightening because it looks dangerous and scratches can hurt, especially once the cat grows up. It also brings a certain unease into life. Cats are tremendously good at hiding and moving very quietly, so a sudden pounce on an ankle can be disconcerting - and even dangerous if you are going downstairs at the time.

Coping strategies

The best way to protect your ankles is to give the cat an target, for instance a moving toy. Best are toys which dangle from a string or from a pole. These can be pulled along to create a moving target for search and destroy missions. Such toys have the added advantage of keeping your hand well clear of the action. You do NOT want your cat to start thinking of your fingers as a legitimate target. Move the toy from one place to another for the cat to chase. Use the table legs for cover and occasionally whip the toy into the air or scoot it to somewhere safely inaccessible. And with a sufficiently long pole, you can do it all from the comfort of your sofa while the cat runs around you. (If only exercising the dog were so easy ...)

Cats love routine, and scheduled play two or three times a day is very important. Playtimes should be anything from 10 to 20 min each and should encourage aerobic exercises as much as possible. That way the cat eventually runs out of energy. Once the cat flops down on her side, it's game over. You have both won.

One of the big problems with playful aggression is that some people often inadvertently encourage it. They play with their cats by tempting them to chase after their hands or feet. That's how cats like the game; but once you get them started they won't stop just because you are tired of getting your ankles shredded. Don't use hands and feet as toys for playfully aggressive cats, unless you like watching TV in boots and motorbike gauntlets.

If, despite all the toys, your ungrateful beast cat does show aggression toward you, try distraction. Divert her attention with a loud bang, a whistle, squirt of water, or air from a compressed air canister. These are normally sufficient to send the kitten diving for cover, and wary of trying again.

Although daily interactive play is very important, you should also encourage solo play by providing open boxes for your cat to explore. Stairs are also great for aerobic exercises, and cats love running up and down them. Like children, cats will eventually tire of a particular toy, so keep an eye out for something new to get your feline excited about.

For more information about different ways to keep your cat busy, have a look at our article on 'How to make your indoor cat happy' in the 'Get a Cat section' of this site.

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