Play Aggression

By Jackson Galaxy

Art has a great relationship with his feline companion, Mouse. That is, except around dinnertime every day. Even though Art watches around the corners to see where Mouse might be lurking, he’s still almost always surprised as Mouse dashes out and ambushes Art’s ankles—sometimes viciously, according to Art.

Art takes Mouse’s actions to mean that he is becoming suddenly territorial, seeing Art as a competitor for the turf they have shared peacefully for so many years.

What Art is actually seeing is a common problem called “play aggression.” Like all other cats, Mouse spends the majority of his day sleeping, storing up energy for “the hunt,” which his natural body clock is programmed to start at dusk and dawn. Art works ten-hour days, comes home, eats dinner, and relaxes in front of the TV. It is around that time, literally like clockwork, that Mouse begins his hit-and-run attacks on Art’s legs. We call this behavior “play aggression,” because it is actually pent-up energy related to a cat’s play/prey drive. This energy must be let out. Mouse is like an energetic balloon, and he’s simply trying not to pop! Art’s ankles, then, represent prey to Mouse, just like a critter scurrying across the floor that he can practice his best hunting moves on.

How do we resolve this problem? As in overstimulation aggression (discussed last month) Art cannot send mixed signals. Is it okay to let Mouse jump onto the bed and attack Art’s fingers or toes while they are underneath the covers, but then get upset when he ambushes Art’s ankles? Of course not. It is the same hunting behavior, directed at an inappropriate target.

Again as with overstimulation aggression, play aggression requires play therapy! The idea is to ritualize play, to let the air out of the cat’s energetic balloon on a predictable basis, and to guide his instincts toward “acceptable victims.” In Mouse’s case, it also reinforces the importance of interactive vs. remote toys. With the introduction of an interactive toy (defined generally as a toy in which you are attached to one end while the cat is playing with the other, like a wand and feather toy), he will experience aerobic activity at a safe distance from Art’s body, and satisfy his basic hunting needs. The ritualizing aspect—that is, performing the therapy at the same time each day—means that Mouse gets his jollies out exactly when he needs them out. His body clock demands the activity, and play therapy is a simple, effective way to satisfy that desire.

Many cats benefit greatly from flower essence therapy. Spirit Essences offers many formulas to help with behavioral issues. In this case, “Feline Training” will help adjust to the new lessons of play therapy.

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