Why Does My Cat Attack Me When We Play?


It’s a common experience for cat owners to get scratches from their feline friends, especially during playtime. Cats love to pounce, chase, and wrestle with toys or human hands, but this energetic play is often accompanied by scratches from their sharp claws. While it can be painful and surprising when a cat scratches you unexpectedly, it’s important to understand that this behavior is quite normal for cats.

In this article, we’ll explore why cats tend to scratch during play, look at the potential risks, and provide tips to minimize scratches so you can enjoy playtime without getting hurt.

Normal Cat Scratching Behavior

Scratching is a completely normal behavior for cats. It serves several purposes for them including marking territory, shedding old claw sheaths, and stretching their bodies and legs.

Cats have an instinctive need to scratch. By scratching objects in their environment, they are visually and chemically marking their territory. Cats have scent glands in their paws that they use to leave marks. Scratching also helps cats remove the dead outer layer of their claws to expose new sharp claws underneath.

Additionally, scratching is a good full body stretch for cats. It allows them to reach upwards and pull downwards with their claws which extends their shoulders, back, and hind legs. This is an important part of their exercise and body maintenance.

Scratching During Play

It’s common for cats to bite and scratch when playing. Kittens learn how to inhibit their bite from their littermates and mother. When adopted young, they often play too rough. According to PetAssure, scratching during play is normal, but should be minimized.

Cats may scratch when overstimulated. Per WikiHow, this occurs if playing too roughly, using hands instead of toys, or petting against the fur. Cats may become overaroused and scratch to get space.

Though scratching during play is common in kittens and cats, it’s important to train them not to do this. Gentle and consistent training can curb scratching during playtime. Provide appropriate toys for scratching and biting. Discourage using hands and feet as play targets. This minimizes painful scratches. Redirect any rough play to appropriate toys.

Why Cats Scratch When Playing

Cats often instinctively scratch when playing due to their natural hunting instincts. According to this source, cats scratch and bite while playing because it stems from their predatory nature. They may see human hands and feet as prey during play sessions and react on instinct by scratching with their claws out. Kittens especially tend to scratch when overstimulated or excited during play.

Cats can also forget to retract their claws when having fun playing. The excitement of the game can distract them from being careful with their scratching. According to The Humane Society, scratching is a normal behavior for cats that allows them to express emotions like excitement. So when playing, cats may scratch unintentionally due to being caught up in the exhilaration of the game.

Risk of Infection

While a cat scratch can seem harmless, it’s important to be aware that they can lead to infections in humans. Cats have bacteria in their mouths that can be transferred to humans through scratches. According to the CDC, the most notable infection from cat scratches is called cat-scratch disease. This bacterial infection is caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria and symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache, and fatigue.

Other potential infections from cat scratches, according to Healthline, include tetanus and rabies. Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria and can lead to painful muscle spasms, while rabies is a viral infection that affects the central nervous system and can be fatal. While rare, these serious infections demonstrate why proper wound care and monitoring for symptoms is recommended after a cat scratch.

Minimizing Scratches

There are several things you can do to minimize scratches when playing with your cat:

Trim your cat’s claws regularly to keep them blunt and less likely to cause damage. Use clippers designed for cats and take care not to cut into the quick, which can be painful and cause bleeding. Only trim a little bit at a time.

Provide plenty of scratching posts, cardboard scratchers, and cat towers for your cat to claw. Place these items near areas your cat likes to play and scratch to redirect its scratching instincts onto appropriate surfaces. Praise your cat when it uses the scratching posts. You can encourage use by rubbing catnip on them.

Rotate toys frequently to keep your cat stimulated and interested in playing with toys rather than your hands and arms. Drag toys that allow you to play from a distance are ideal. Toss balls and mice for your cat to chase. Use toys on strings and wands to engage your cat without putting your hands at risk.

Distract your cat with a toy when its scratching or biting behavior starts up during play. Redirecting to appropriate toys disrupts the unwanted behavior. Yelling “ouch” and withdrawing attention when scratched can also be an effective deterrent.

Consider using synthetic pheromones like Feliway to help calm your cat and curb unwanted scratching or aggression. Pheromones may chill out kittens during rambunctious play when scratching gets out of hand.




Signs of Aggressive Scratching

It’s important to be able to distinguish between playful scratching and aggressive scratching in cats. Playful scratching is a normal feline behavior, while aggressive scratching can signal an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

According to the ASPCA article on cat aggression, there are some clear differences between playful and aggressive scratching:

  • Playful scratching is inhibited – the cat will not use its full force and claws may not make contact with skin.
  • Aggressive scratching involves grabbing, biting, raking with claws, hissing/growling, stiff body language, and intense focus/staring.
  • Playful cats will take turns chasing each other. Aggressive cats target and continuously attack.
  • Playful cats are easily distracted with toys or food. Aggressive cats remain highly focused on the target of their aggression.

The Cornell Feline Health Center notes that aggressive scratching and biting often comes with no warning, and is intense from the start. Playful scratching typically involves less force and is accompanied by other playful behaviors like running, jumping, or stalking.

If a cat is breaking skin, drawing blood, or scratching aggressively without inhibition, it likely signals a deeper issue requiring assessment by a veterinarian or cat behaviorist.

When to Seek Help

In most cases, occasional scratches from play are harmless and can be treated at home with proper first aid cleaning and bandaging. However, you should consult your veterinarian if the scratching behavior seems to be getting more frequent or severe leading to frequent injuries.

According to Healthline, it’s a good idea to seek medical treatment if you’ve recently been scratched, bitten, or had an open wound licked by a cat that isn’t your own, as their bacteria could cause infection. You should also see your doctor if the scratch site shows signs of infection like swelling, redness, pus, red streaks, or you develop a fever.

Frequent aggressive scratching may be a sign your cat is stressed, frustrated, or has an underlying medical issue that requires veterinary attention. Your vet can help determine if behavioral therapy, medication, or other treatment is needed to curb problematic scratching behavior.

Training Your Cat

Using positive reinforcement is the most effective way to train a cat not to scratch furniture or people. This involves rewarding your cat with treats, praise, or playtime when they scratch appropriate surfaces like scratching posts. You can also use catnip spray on scratching posts to encourage your cat to use them. According to research from PetCo, yelling or punishing a cat for scratching will not change the behavior and can cause the cat distress.

It’s best to start training kittens early by providing plenty of scratching surfaces around your home. Place scratching posts near furniture you don’t want scratched. When the kitten scratches furniture, gently pick them up and move them to the scratching post. Reward them with a treat when they scratch the right surface. Consistency is key – you may need to repeat this process many times before the kitten learns. Adult cats can be trained using the same techniques, but it may take more time and patience.

Trimming your cat’s nails regularly can also minimize damage from scratching. Only trim the sharp tip of each nail, taking care not to hit the quick which contains nerves and blood vessels. Ask your vet to demonstrate proper nail trimming technique. You can also use plastic nail caps or covers as a temporary deterrent, but check with your vet first as some cats may try to chew them off.


Cats commonly use their claws and scratch during play, which can sometimes result in scratches on human skin. Light scratching is usually harmless, but repetitive, aggressive scratching may indicate an underlying issue that requires training or veterinary attention. There are steps cat owners can take to minimize scratches, like using toys to redirect scratching, trimming claws regularly, and teaching cats to associate gentle play with rewards.

While an occasional scratch may be unavoidable, following basic training and precautions can greatly reduce the frequency and severity. If scratching remains problematic, seek advice from a veterinarian or cat behaviorist. With patience and positive reinforcement, cats can learn to play gently. Understanding normal cat behavior is key to maintaining an affectionate, scratch-free relationship.

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