How to Tell Your Cats Are About to Fight, According to Scientists

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic

Have you ever wondered if your cats are play fighting or fighting for real? People living in multi-cat households know that the occasional scuffle or a full-blown cat fight is bound to happen. 

However, many cat owners have a hard time figuring out whether their cats are fighting or roughhousing. A new study published in Scientific Reports can provide some clues. 

As it turns out, certain behaviors could indicate whether an interaction between two felines is friendly, aggressive, or something in between. 

In this study, scientists, including Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia, analyzed 105 videos of interactions between 210 cats. The videos were obtained directly from cat owners and YouTube. 

After watching around one-third of the videos, Gajdoš-Kmecová pinpointed six types of specific behaviors, including wrestling, chasing, staying still, vocalizing, interactive, and non-interactive activities. 

She then watched all the videos again to see which cats exhibited one of these specific behaviors and for how long. After running a statistical analysis, Gajdoš-Kmecová was able to identify three distinctive types of interactions between the cat pairs - playful, intermediate, and aggressive. 

To confirm her findings, other members of the research team also watched the videos and classified each interaction between cats. 

Over half of the cats from the videos, 56% to be exact, exhibited playful interactions. According to the study, playful interactions included wrestling and a lack of vocalization. 

About 29% were labeled as agonistic, meaning they exhibited any type of social behavior that included threatening, aggression, and submission. Cats in this group vocalized and exhibited recurring bouts of inactivity.

The cats in the intermediate group were involved in both aggressive and playful encounters. According to researchers, this group showed prolonged exchanges of specific behaviors, like laying on the back with the belly exposed, pouncing, stalking, and grooming each other. 

Scientists believe that this mixture of playful and aggressive behavior may be a sign of short-term friction between the cats rather than the end of the relationship. 

“This might escalate into a fully agonistic encounter but does not necessarily reflect a breakdown in their social relationship but rather a short-term disagreement in social priorities,” researchers wrote in the study. 

This study is the first to apply a scientific approach to cat behavior that can be identified by experienced and first-time owners alike. Thanks to this study, scientists can now classify inter-cat interactions as either playful, agonistic, or intermediate. 

Wrestling can be a sign of a fight but if it comes with bouts of inactivity then that often means it is playful,” explained Profesor Daniel Mills, who led the study.

“Playfighting is also without vocalizations. That’s the profile of a friendly cat. The agonistic cat, they might not do as much wrestling with inactivity but they do lots of vocalization.”

“Owners should keep an eye out on how much they are wrestling and whether or not they’re vocalizing. Vocalizing can be broad and include meowing and also yowling,” he added. 

We all know when cats are fighting fur real, but it’s important to recognize intermediate interactions, where things could end in play or escalate into a real fight. 

A lot of cats end up at cat rescue centers because the owners think that they’ve fallen out. In the clinic, I’ve seen cats that are playing and the owner thinks it’s a real fight,” said Professor Mills. 

If your cats are really getting along (share food and toys and sleep together), an occasional bout of agonistic play is okay. But if your cats aren’t the best of friends, you should look for signs of agonistic behavior. 

Join the PetGuide community. Get the latest pet news and product recommendations by subscribing to our newsletter here.

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

More by Nevena Nacic