It’s common to see cats roughhousing, but that often leaves cat owners wondering: Are my cats fighting or playing? After all, if they’re playing, you want to encourage them. But if they’re fighting, you may need to intervene!
In short, when cats fight, they have their ears pinned all the way back, the whites of their eyes are showing, and they will be extremely vocal. Cats that are playing will usually have their ears forward or slightly sideways, normally-dilated pupils, and they’ll be mostly quiet.
There’s a lot more to cat body language than that, however, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between cats that are simply playing rough with each other or actually fighting. Keep reading and we’ll break down each of these behaviors for you and provide visual examples.
By the end of this post, you should be able to quickly tell the difference between a cat fight and a cat play-fight.
Signs Your Cats are Fighting
First, let’s take a look at what a fighting cat will look like. We’re going to go over each part of the body individually, but keep in mind that it’s all of them put together that let you know a cat is fighting. If your cat only displays one or two of these, they may be playing or simply annoyed.
In a fighting cat, the ears will be pinned all the way back. If you can see your cat from the front, you probably can't even see his ears because of how tightly they’re pinned to his head. Typically, the ears won’t move, either, even in response to sound.
The next thing you want to look at is the eyes. In a cat that’s preparing to or already in a fight, the pupils will be extremely dilated. You will also be able to see the whites of her eyes. She will also have them laser-focused on what she’s fighting with, and it will be nearly impossible to distract her.
A cat’s tail can tell you a lot about what he’s thinking and feeling. Before a fight, a cat’s tail will get bushy as he tries to make himself look bigger. In the excitement of a fight, it will usually stay that way, with all the hair standing on end.
The movement of his tail is also a factor in determining whether he’s playing or fighting. When cats are angry or extremely annoyed, their tails lash rapidly, with the whole length of the tail moving. This is a warning that an attack is imminent.
There’s a phrase about the “claws coming out” when humans interacting get mean or aggressive towards each other. That comes from cats fighting. When cats are legitimately fighting, their claws are out. It can be hard to see from a distance, but when fur from the other cat is flying, it’s likely being pulled out by the other cat’s bared claws.
When two cats are facing off to fight, they usually stand sideways rather than facing each other head-on. This is an attempt to make themselves appear larger. In the midst of a fight, this could change, but the important thing to look for is how tense they are.
In a fight, a cat will be tense the whole time. She won’t sit completely on her rear end, though she may crouch low to the ground. If she lies down, it may be to get into a better fighting position. Although exposing the stomach may be seen as a submissive move, from this angle, another cat has to get through all four clawed paws and a mouthful of teeth to get to any vital parts.
Cat fights are LOUD. There’s no mistaking the screams, yowls, cries, and more a cat may let out before and during a fight. In fact, most cat fights involve far more vocalizations than actual physical interactions. This is because most cats don’t want to actually fight.
As you’ll see, the last two points have to do with the context of the interaction your cats are having. This is also important in determining whether your cats are fighting or playing.
Cats that don’t know each other are far more likely to fight than old friends, which is why you have to consider how well your cats know each other. If you’re introducing two adult cats to each other who have never met before, there’s a good chance the interaction you’re seeing is a fight.
This is why it’s important to introduce cats properly to each other at any age. Otherwise, the resident cat will feel as though their territory is being threatened and will act accordingly. Most often, this means fighting with the intruder.