Types of Play Behavior in Cats

Play is a very important part of the feline world and kittens need the opportunity to play to learn vital adult skills both for communication and for hunting. From a very early age, they play with their littermates and with objects that they discover within their environment. Indeed, play provides the ideal opportunity for kittens to explore and investigate their surroundings. Young kittens play using chasing and pouncing behaviors that seem to have their origin in predation. We're all able to recognize when kittens are playing, but have you ever wondered what the purpose of each type of play is?

MaxCare's Resident Veterinarian Dr. Jogeswar breaks down the three types of feline play.

The Three Types

Play can be grouped into three categories, which are locomotory, social, and object behavior.

In kittens, locomotory play may be social or solitary and includes running, rolling, jumping, and climbing.

Social play includes wrestling, rolling, and biting with conspecifics (although young kittens will often accept human hand as a conspecific and play as if it were another kitten, especially if the hand responds appropriately).

Object play is the variety that involves an object, whether social or solitary.

Development and Characteristics

By 4 weeks of age, kittens engage in social play with their siblings and mother, which continues at a high level until around 14 weeks of age, with the peak period of social play occurring between 9 and 14 weeks of age.

Kittens often vocalize during their play fights, and as the intensity of the fight increases, so does the intensity of meows produced.

At an early age, the social play between kittens can be quite rough, with bites and scratches from siblings sufficient to induce sequels of pain. As kittens experience such bites they learn to reduce the intensity of their attacks on others, since inducing pain in others will invariably lead to a painful response.

Kittens then learn to reduce the intensity of their attacks by inhibiting the latter part of the attack sequence. This inhibition induces an arched effect in the kitten’s body as the front legs come to a halt during the attack sequence. Adult cats will sometimes respond to playful approaches by kittens but social play usually occurs between kittens.

Social play between adult cats is rare and may lead to fighting, but it can also stimulate aspects of the predatory sequence, such as stalking, chasing, pouncing, and neck bites or object play, with the conspecific’s body replacing the object.

Object play includes pawing, stalking, and biting of objects and is commonly observed in kittens and many adult cats. Such play can be regarded as the simulating aspects of the predatory sequence, and cat owners can often provide a variety of ‘prey-like’ toys to allow their pets to indulge in such activities.

Object play and locomotory play behavior increase from around 6 weeks of age and they reach a peak at around 18 weeks of age, after which these play types will start to decline. Object play may also be directed at apparently imaginary objects since kittens can often be observed pouncing on, pawing at, or chasing items that are invisible to us.