Cat Social Play And How It Benefits Kittens and Cats

Cat social play is often overlooked, and taken for granted.

Even if you don’t own a cat, you will still find yourself looking
at those videos of cats and kittens doing the silly, to the amazing.
If you are a cat owner, especially if you have had kittens around,
then you know that kittens and cats loooove to play.

Research coming out of Cornell University in New York suggests
that cat social play may benefit kittens and cats.

Basically, these researchers watched kittens play with each other.
Now, who wouldn’t want a job like that?

For those of you who have been around cats, or have raised more two or more
kittens or younger cats at the same time, you likely already know
that kittens really like to show off and display their dominance.
Especially the boys! Not so unlike the human species.

There are several “Play” positions that these researchers felt were
important. These are:

1. Belly up
2. Standing up
3. Vertical stance
4. Horizontal leap
5. Pounce
6. Face off
7. Side step
8. Chasing


Belly up during cat social play

These folks came to the conclusion that the incredible frequency
of the “Belly up”, and “Stand up” positions, and the various combinations
of these positions, indicated that the goal of the kittens and cats social play was
was to initiate physical contact. DO YA’ THINK?

cat social play
Belly Up Cat Play

Anyone who has observed two cats or kittens playing for
more than about 20 seconds would probably come to the same conclusion – that
there was a definite desire to initiate physical contact. But research is research,
and they (hopefully) did things by “The Book”. I just hope they read it (The book that is).

When in the Belly Up (BU) position, a kitten will paw at the other kitten.
The researchers attirbuted this to just wanting to make physical contact with
the other kitten on the head, neck, or ventrally.


Kitten and cat social play – Stand Up Position (SU)

The stand up position (note the previous photo) would certainly be considered the dominant position, and the standing cat will taunt, nip, and “Bite” the kitten
who is in the submissive (Belly up) position.

The cats/kittens will often switch places with one another throughout
a play session. This behavior is often seen as both kittens tend to roll
about in unison as one entity while switching places several times.

The Face Off position during social play of the cat (FO)

The Face Off position is characterized by a switching tail, a taunting paw, and
the kittens “Steely Gaze” being directed at the other cat or kitten.

There also might be a simultaneous “Face Off” by both kittens.
(It sounds to me like things are getting serious).

The Vertical Stance (VS)

I’m not certain that I can explain the Vertical Stance position very well,
so here is the researchers explanation:

“The kitten assumes a sitting position, lifts its front paws off the ground
and stretches them out perpendicular to its body. The kitten also extends

its back legs so that it is in a stationary bi-pedal position.

I think what is happening is that the cat/kitten is basically standing
on its back legs looking like it is ready to box.

The horizontal leap (HL) during kittens social play

This next one is also difficult to visualize, so here is the researchers
description of the “Horizontal Leap”:

“The kitten assumes a lateral position, with respect to another kitten, arches back slightly and curves its tail upwards and towards its body then leaps off the ground.”

I am thinking that this may be when the kitten or cat gets along side of
another kitten, and appears to take off like a rocket – straight up! Then,
from what I usually remember seeing, they usually scamper away (but this
is not noted in this research).


Side Step (SS) during social play

This is a very common sight, especially among kittens. The kitten has
its back arched, and appears to walk sideways in its “Tippy-Paws” while
continuing to eye its “Prey”. The cat will kind of circle its victim.

The researchers description:
“The kitten arches its back, curls its tail up- wards and walks sideways toward or around another kitten or object.”

Pounce (P)

Anyone who has been around any cat will recognize the “Pounce”.

The cat/kitten may crouch, or drop its chest to the floor with its
back end and tail (which is usually swishing from side-to-side) up
in the air, and the there is the “Pounce”, a very quick jump and landing
on (or near) the target.

Again, here is how the researchers describe things :
“The kitten crouches with its head held low or touching the ground and its back legs tucked in and its tail straight back. The tail may be moved back and forth. The kitten
moves its hindquarters back and forth and moves forward, the thrust coming from the extension of its back legs.”

The last pattern of behavior that these researchers identify is the Chase.
This is another social (or anti-social) bit of behavior that the researchers
saw in most of the interactions that took place during their research.


Chase (CH)

The Chase is exactly what the word describes. One cat or kitten takes off
after another. One chases and the other one runs away.

One thing that I find rather amusing in their description is – well, here.
You read it for yourself. It may give you a chuckle.

“Of all the patterns, this one moves the animal through the most area.”

Two animals running after each other covering the most ground? Genius!

Again, the researchers did note it as part of the behavior, and did not take
for granted that the movements covering a large area would be acknowledged
by their readers.

To us cat owners, its a “Well, DUH!”.
Their analysis was that these Cat social play behaviors occur from 4 weeks to
about 4 months of age. Also, the older the kitten becomes, the fewer of these
social play interactions will take place. Hey, they grow up.

You may be reading this and recognize the resemblence to actual cat fighting.
These researcher note that the differences between the fighting and the play is
that during play there are specific combinations of these elements, and these
combinations are different during play versus an actual fighting situation.

For instance, in a play situation, the Belly Up is usually preceded by a Pounce.
During an actual fight the Pounce is replaced by the defensive “Arched- back, posture” which is never seen in a play situation.

In addition, cat social play is usually two cat or kittens appearing to kill each other,
but seem to be on equal terms. Whereas in an actual fight situation you will usually
see one cat being dominant over the other, and the exhibiting of fear in the cat
that is being dominated.


Kitten benefits of cat social play

The Cat Social Play provides:

1. Exercise
2. Promotion of bonding with litter mates
3. Keeps the litter of cats together for “Easy” mom access
4. Preparation for when kittens must be on their own


More of the researchers thoughts:

“This period can be characterized as one of social living, dependency upon a from the living area. Kittens, at this age, parent for food and protection and confinement of activities to a relatively small area. The movements of the young are first re- stricted by the kitten’s inability to travel and later by the necessity that they be available to the female for nourishment and protection from environmental dangers. It is while the kitten is living under such conditions that social play occurs as frequent and regular activity.”

Research is one of those things that will often be absolutely confusing
as, well, cat behavior. Then there is the research that is so straight
forward (like this study) that leaves you wondering why someone
wold go to the trouble of doing it at all.

The fact is, why cats behave the way they do is a total mystery, other
than the simple fact that they have many instinctual habits that are
just inherent, and basic. They my seem primitive, but we have them too.

Cats are considered to be more solitary by nature than say dogs.
Dogs have succumbed to domestication more easily also.
However, cats do like social interaction, just not in the same ways.

I am not going into anything deeper here. I will give more of my
thoughts in next months Cat Purrs publication. This was actually
an interesting study in many ways. Sign up (above right) and find out
what those ways are.

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