How to Know if Your Kitten Is Playing With or Attacking You

A kitten attacking you is typically doing so out of play, not aggression. However, kittens shouldn’t be allowed to play with your hands or feet. Redirect them with toys and make sure your kitten is getting at least 30-45 minutes of daily play. Any aggression is rare and comes from fear.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to tell if your kitten is playing or attacking you in aggression. You’ll learn about the kitten body language you need to understand this, how to play with your kitten so that they don’t attack you, and more!


Aggression in Kittens is Rare

Aggression in kittens is rare, and it’s much more likely your kitten is pouncing on you playfully. However, aggression does happen.

It’s typically a fear reaction, so it’s important to be gentle with your kitten. Don’t play too roughly with them, handle them forcefully, or purposefully scare them.


How to Tell Your Kitten is Aggressive

Some signs your kitten is aggressive include:

  • They were born feral. Feral kittens are more likely to show aggression to humans before they are socialized. This is more likely the older your kitten was when you adopted them.
  • An arched back. This is a sign of fear in cats. They arch their back up high in order to look larger, hoping to scare off the perceived threat.
  • Hissing, growling, or yowling (a scream or howl-like meow). Kittens don’t tend to make these noises during play. When they do, they’re communicating that they’d like you to back off. Sometimes these noises are a warning of aggression to come if you cross your kitten’s boundaries. They may also be accompanied by lunging, biting, or scratching.
  • Fur standing up on the back or tail. Your kitten’s tail may become puffy, or the hair on their back stands upright. This is another way of making themselves seem larger than they truly are, and often indicates fear.
  • “Downward dog” position. In dogs, a raised butt and lowered head mean playfulness. In kittens, it’s the opposite. If your kitten has their butt in the air and their head near the floor before attacking you, they’re being aggressive.
    They might also be playing and acting out aggression as a way to practice, as they do with hunting!


Your Kitten is Likely Just Playing

Like I discussed, it’s much more likely your kitten is just playing than that they’re attacking you aggressively.

However, playful pouncing can look and feel like aggression, especially to those unfamiliar with cat behavior.

One reason for this is that it hurts when a kitten claws or bites you. It’s easy to think that your kitten meant harm when they actually didn’t.

The second reason is that playing simulates hunting for cats. So maybe you look at your kitten wiggling their butt like they do at birds outside and think, they want to kill me!

In truth, playing is how cats act out their instincts. It’s also how kittens learn to hunt. They pounce, kick, and bite their mother or siblings before adoption, and will play this way with other cats into adulthood.

Through this play, they are taught by the other cats how rough is too rough. Their siblings will cry out in pain and stop playing when a kitten bites too hard, for instance, and this teaches them to be gentler.

Kittens separated from their mother and siblings too young are more likely to play too roughly and bite harder. Never adopt a kitten before eight weeks of age unless it is medically necessary to separate them from the litter or they are orphaned.


Signs of a Playful Kitten

Signs of playfulness in kittens include:

  • Wiggling their butt before pouncing. This might be accompanied by your kitten sneaking up on you, hiding behind the couch, or jumping out from under furniture. In this case, your foot is often their “prey” or the toy they’ve chosen to play with.
  • Ears pressed down toward the floor. This may be your kitten trying to make themselves small and invisible to sneak up on you before pouncing.
  • Body or tail twitching. This happens when your kitten is getting excited about the pounce!
  • Tail wagging. This signifies excitement as well, and your kitten’s tail might even thump against the ground.


Stop Your Kitten from Attacking You

Of course, even playful attacks cannot be allowed. I’ll discuss how to stop your kitten from attacking you below!


Play with Your Kitten Daily

Cats of all ages need at least 30-45 minutes of play, broken into shorter 10-15 minute sessions throughout the day. Kittens may need more activity than this due to higher energy levels.

It’s best to schedule play into your day so that it’s more convenient, your kitten knows when to expect some exercise, and you don’t forget!

I like to schedule play time before my cats’ meals. This way they can “hunt” their toys down, then eat some tasty dinner like they would if living outdoors.

Other great times to schedule play are before you leave home and before bed time. Both of these are times you want your kitten to be tired so that they sleep rather than get into trouble!

Here are some tips for playing with your cat in a way you know they will be playing and not attacking you:

  • Invest in a good wand toy. I used to buy dollar store toys, thinking it didn’t matter—but it made a big impact when I switched over! I use this wand toy, and it’s very bouncy, moves a bit unpredictably, and the toys at the end can be replaced if your cat chews them up or you want a change.
  • Use what you have. Spending a ton of money on cat toys isn’t strictly necessary, nor is it affordable for everyone—so while I do recommend the wand toy above, if you can afford it, you can also craft a toy from string laying around your house or use the toys you already own.
    Always take away broken toys and never allow your kitten to play with small items that they can choke on.
  • Move your toy unpredictably, like prey! When playing with your kitten, think about how a mouse would scamper across the floor or how a bird would soar up toward the ceilings. Mindlessly waving the toy in front of your kitten won’t be nearly as much fun for them as a toy diving behind furniture, soaring across the room, and landing on the cat tree.
  • Include furniture in play. I love including furniture such as chairs or cat trees in play. You can get your kitten to climb to the top of the cat tower or jump onto the sofa to really tire them out while playing.
    This will work better for older kittens, of course, not young ones who still struggle to get onto the furniture!
  • Make it fun for you! As someone with many cats, I know play time can feel like a chore. I love to make it fun for myself by putting on some music or listening to an audiobook while we play. It’s important that you enjoy yourself too!


Provide a Variety of Toys

Alongside playing with your kitten actively, they should also be able to play independently. Variety is important for kittens, as they don’t want to “kill” the same toy again and again.

Try swapping out toys once and a while, putting unused ones away, and bringing them back out later to make them fun again. You can even save some toys for special occasions when you bring them out, keeping them fresh and new to your kitten.

My favorite toys to stash away are this tower toy and this electronic one!

Most of my cats get bored if I bring them out too often, and the electronic one isn’t meant for unsupervised play anyway. But occasionally, they really enjoy the change of pace!

Some other great toys for your kitten to play with independently are kicker toys, stuffed catnip toys, and bell toys.

For some free options, consider household items such as bottle caps (only ones that are too large for your kitten to choke on), empty toilet paper rolls, paper bags without handles, and shipping boxes.

My cats even use a Christmas ornament they stole from the tree one year as a bell toy to bat around.

The only rule for kitten toys is that they are safe—don’t allow your kitten to have anything that could break apart or is small enough to choke on, especially unattended.

Windows with a birdfeeder outside are also tons of fun for a kitten! My cats love watching from our glass doors as birds and squirrels move around the yard.


Never Use Your Hands or Feet as Toys

If you don’t want your kitten attacking your hands or feet, never use them as toys! This will teach them that attacking you is okay.

Instead, use toys made for cats like those I listed above. For hands-on play, use a wand toy or try tossing their toys for a game of fetch!

This allows the two of you to bond without you being bitten or scratched up.


Reward Gentle Interaction and Playing with Toys

Teaching your kitten what not to do isn’t enough. They also need to know what’s allowed! Reward them when they interact gently with you and when they play with their toys.

Their reward can be praise, treats, or playtime!


Redirect or Ignore Bad Behavior

When your kitten does attack you, redirect them by keeping a toy on hand. Toss it across the room to get your kitten to play with it instead of you!

Another option is to ignore your kitten when they attack you, teaching them that it gets them no attention at all. Leave the room for a few minutes if needed, or until they’ve calmed down.

Then, return and play with your hyper kitten using toys!


Don’t Punish Your Kitten

Pouncing like this is normal behavior for a kitten, as is biting or scratching. Never punish them for acting on their instincts.

Your kitten may be teething, hyper, or just doesn’t yet know the rules when it comes to interacting with people.

Punishments won’t work, but they turn playful behavior into aggression! By being aggressive toward your kitten, they’re likely to respond in kind.

In addition, kittens may see punishments such as yelling or scolding them as better than no attention at all. They’ll then keep attacking you because you’ve reinforced the behavior.

Instead, ignore or redirect bad behavior like I discussed above. And be sure to reward your kitten when they’re behaving well!


Adopt a Second Kitten

Lastly, adopting a second kitten can teach your first kitten a lot about manners, bite inhibition, and more. It’ll also give them a healthy outlet for all of their energy!

Kittens do very well in pairs, so much so that I’ve seen rescues who refuse to adopt kittens into single-cat households.

Only you know if adopting a second kitten is right for you, your family, and your kitten. If you do choose to adopt another, be sure to introduce them right so that you don’t have any mishaps.

Writer: Katelynn Sobus

I am a freelance writer who specializes in the pet industry.  My full bio