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Can you tell if your cat is playing or fighting?

A new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports has categorized the behavior of cat interactions into playful, aggressive, and intermediate in order to help owners distinguish between play and genuine fighting. The experts suggested that cats may engage in a mixture of playful and aggressive behaviors that could easily escalate into full-blown fighting if not properly managed by the owner.

The scientists evaluated 105 video clips sourced from YouTube and directly from cat owners showing a variety of interactions between 210 cats. Based on initial observations of the animals, the researchers assembled six behavioral categories, including wrestling, chasing, and vocalizations. These categories were used to analyze the behaviors of the remaining cats (which were grouped based on the duration and frequency of the six behaviors).

In a next step, four of the authors reviewed the same videos and divided the interactions between the cats in three categories: playful, or friendly interactions; agonistic, or aggressive interactions; and intermediate interactions, referring to a mixture of both playful and aggressive behaviors. Over half of the cats (56.2 percent or 118 cats) were described as engaging in playful interactions, while 60 cats (28.6 percent) were categorized as agonistic, and 32 (15.2 percent) were placed in the intermediate category. 

When comparing the six cat behavioral categories with the three newly defined interaction groupings, the scientists found that wrestling behavior between cats was most closely linked to the playful group, while chasing and vocalizations were associated with the agonistic group. Although the intermediate group seemed to have characteristics of both other groups, most of the interactions verged towards playful rather than agonistic modes. Moreover, the intermediate group exhibited prolonged exchanges of behaviors such as laying on their back with their belly upwards, stalking, pouncing, and approaching and grooming each other.

According to the experts, this combination of playful and aggressive behaviors may reflect a short-term disagreement between the cats rather than a complete breakdown of their relationship. Identifying potential tensions between cats may help owners manage their relationship in order to avoid escalation of conflict and the need of separation, the authors concluded.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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