Play between kittens is not simply for fun. It is that, too, of course, but it also teaches them a lot of useful lessons about chasing, hunting, fighting and escaping, all of which will come in handy in later life. Generally, domestic cats play-fight, both with their owners and with other cats, with their claws sheathed. An overly aggressive kitten must be discouraged from this behaviour early on before his claws and teeth become a more dangerous proposition.
Play is an important part of a cat’s development – it teaches it how to chase, how to time a punch, how to pounce and catch, how to run away from danger and, of course, how to fight.
There is little difference between kitten and adult behaviour, other than in the intensity with which such actions are performed and the damage that they are intended to cause. On the whole, domestic cats play-fight, both with their owners and with other cats, with their claws sheathed, and injuries – or even the loss of a single drop of blood – are rare.
If your cat tends to scratch you when you are playing, you must discourage this behaviour. You may need to provide it with a scratching post to deter it from turning its claws on you or the furniture.
It has been suggested that one important function of social play may simply be to keep the litter close together, so that the mother can find her kittens more easily. Thus play acts as a sort of invisible play pen.
In other species such as dogs, for example, play teaches as much about social skills as hunting ones. It is now thought that play may also fulfil an important part in a cat’s social development.
A kitten that is denied the opportunity to play may grow up into a rather antisocial, insular, even neurotic cat.
If your cat has an aggressive personality, however, and if you’re not careful to discourage such behaviour from an early age, you may sometimes find that you are the victim of your cat’s rough play. Such a cat may get carried away during play and start to attack you, both with its teeth and its unsheathed claws.
Although this may be amusing in a young kitten, when it can’t actually do you any harm, it should be firmly discouraged before it becomes a habit and its teeth and claws become more capable of inflicting real injury.
Stop playing with the kitten immediately and ignore it. Only start playing with it again when it has calmed down.
Q. My cat had several kittens but a fatal disease struck all except one of them. How will this kitten manage, without any playmates?
It is true that the lone kitten is at a disadvantage. It will try to persuade its mother to play with it and she will probably put up with this for the first four or five weeks. But as the kitten gets bigger, she may get aggressive towards it.
Q. I’ve heard it said that play for kittens is largely a rehearsal for life. What exactly does this mean?
Play for a kitten is a rehearsal of the skills and behaviour that will dominate its adult life, such as hunting, killing and fighting. In the absence of real prey, kittens play out the roles of pursuer and pursued.
Q. At what age do kittens start playing?
Kittens normally play from about three weeks.