It can often be difficult to understand if your cats are playing or fighting, causing concern for a lot of cat owners, foster parents and folks working with cats in a shelter or rescue environment. There are a few things you can look for to have a better idea of when to step in and de-escalate or let them continue playing.

First, it’s important to know that kittens are still learning to understand boundaries, and one of the ways they learn that is from other cats. Through play, they learn body language, vocalizations and how to create space when needed. In order for that to happen, they may use teeth and claws, often with a lot of vocalization. You may see adolescent and adult cats use the same play style, but there are things we can look for to know if the play is mutual, even if appears as if they’re fighting.

One thing we look for is allowing for breaks or space during play. One cat may move away or stop the play momentarily, and if the other allows for that, they’re communicating well. They may choose to re-engage soon after, but respect for another cat asking for space is a nice indicator that even the roughest play is just play. Keep an eye on your cats as they play. They may wrestle and kick, biting one another, perhaps growling as this happens, but if both cats are engaged with the same energy, changing positions and choosing to remain engaged, the play is likely mutual. You may see them take small breaks, re-engaging with a lot of energy, but if both cats choose to engage in this way, it’s likely just a very high energy play session. Remember, either cat could choose to move away. If they’re choosing to remain in the space with one another, this is likely mutual play. These are likely also cats who seem quite comfortable with one another when not playing, as this respect for space during play indicates that they communicate well and understand one another’s boundaries.

The line between fighting and rough play can seem very thin, but if you see your cats moving mutually, taking breaks as they choose without one cat constantly asking to engage as the other moves away, you’re likely seeing cats who just have a nicely matched energy level, which is a great thing for any cat owner!