The Curious Cat Kick. Why Your Feline Uses Its Hind Legs Like a Bunny

Introduction

Cats often exhibit a unique kicking behavior where they rapidly kick their hind legs in the air, similar to how a rabbit kicks its legs. This is commonly referred to as “bunny kicking” or “rabbit kicking.” When cats perform this motion, they lay on their sides or backs with their hind legs stretched out straight before swiftly kicking them up and down in quick succession. The kicks usually last for a few seconds before the cat stops and rests. This intriguing behavior is instinctual for cats and serves several purposes that relate to their survival, communication, and emotions.

Anatomy of Cat Legs

Unlike humans that walk plantigrade (with the heel and pads of the feet making contact with the ground), cats are digitigrade animals -they walk on their toes with the heel and wrist elevated off the ground (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_anatomy). Their leg and paw anatomy reflect this style of ambulation. Cats have 5 toes on their front paws and 4 toes on their hind paws, with the dewclaw on the forelimbs being equivalent to our thumbs (https://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/C/cat_domestic_anatomy.html). The paws act as shock absorbers while the cat is moving. The toe bones are connected by ligaments to the ankle and wrist bones, allowing flexibility. Cats walk very precisely on their toes in a straight line, which makes them stealthy hunters.

Cats Have Powerful Back Legs

Cats rely on their strong hind legs and limb muscles for many of their normal daily activities like hunting, running, and playing. According to Cats.com, a cat’s back legs contain powerful muscles that allow them to jump up to six times their body height vertically, leap distances more than eight times their body length horizontally, and run speeds up to 30 mph. The hind legs propel a cat’s movement and provide the force they need to climb, prowl, pounce, kick, and more.

A cat’s leg anatomy features specialized adaptations for these athletic feats. Their thigh muscles, including the quadriceps and hamstrings, are exceptionally developed to enable powerful extension and flexion of the hips, knees, and ankles. Cats also have additional leg muscles like the gluteals and adductors that further enhance strength and control. Their hind paw bones act as shock absorbers on landing to cushion jumps from heights. All these leg muscles work together to make a cat’s back legs nimble, fast, and very strong.

Kicking is Instinctual

Kicking is an instinctive self-defense behavior for cats that originates from their days as wild hunters. When cats feel threatened, they will kick out with their powerful hind legs to ward off predators. This is an innate reaction meant to injure or startle an attacker so the cat can escape.

Cats have very muscular back legs that allow them to leap high distances and run very fast. Their leg strength gives their kicks significant force. The claws on their hind paws are especially sharp, acting like weapons when the cat lashes out (https://www.rover.com/blog/cat-bunny-kick/). Kicking out is a go-to move cats use when feeling insecure or needing to protect themselves.

Even domestic house cats retain this instinctual kicking reflex. If a cat feels stressed by an unknown person or animal, they may hike up and kick out as a warning. Cats also sometimes kick when playing, especially with hands or feet, due to prey drive kicking in. The kicking is meant to incapacitate so they can go for the “kill.”

Kicking with Both Legs

Cats are capable of kicking with both of their powerful hind legs in rapid, alternating motions. This is commonly referred to as “bunny kicking” or “rabbit kicking” due to the resemblance to a rabbit’s hopping and kicking movements. When cats kick with both legs they are exhibiting an instinctual behavior that originates from hunting or self-defense (1).

In the wild, cats have been observed using rapid, alternating kicks with their hind legs to wound or kill prey once caught. The repeated kicking motion allows cats to rake their sharp claws across a target, inflicting damage while maintaining a safe distance with their back legs. Indoor cats may exhibit this behavior when playing with toys or even when overstimulated from petting (2).

The strength and speed of a cat’s hind legs allows them to land a series of powerful kicks in quick succession. When irritated, frightened, or provoked, cats will kick with both legs against perceived threats as a defensive maneuver. The kicking is intended to wound and provide an opportunity for the cat to escape the situation.

Kicking Targets

Cats commonly perform kicking against a variety of targets, including objects, other animals, and even their owners. When playing on their own, cats will often bunny kick stuffed toys or balls (Preventive Vet, 2020). The kicking motion allows them to grab and bite the toy. During play fights with other cats or animals, bunny kicking is used to attack and defend (Rover, 2023). The powerful kicks are aimed at the opponent’s body.

Cats may also direct kicks toward their owners while being petted or held. This often occurs along with biting or scratching. The kicking is an instinctual aggressive response, but does not always indicate the cat feels threatened. Young, energetic cats tend to bunny kick more often during play and petting (Hill’s Pet Nutrition, 2019). However, owners should discourage this behavior to avoid injury.

Kicking While Lying Down

Cats will often kick their legs when lying on their backs, especially during play. This is sometimes referred to as “bunny kicking” (source). When a cat is playing or being petted by their owner, they may roll onto their backs and begin rapidly kicking their hind legs in the air. This likely stems from an instinctive behavior to kick and scratch at prey (source). Even though house cats are domesticated, they still retain these innate hunting behaviors.

Kicking while on the back is typically an innocent sign of playfulness and contentment in cats. However, in some cases it can progress into aggressive scratching or biting, so owners should monitor their cat’s body language for signs of overstimulation.

Rabbit Kicking Comparison

Rabbits also frequently perform rapid, alternating back leg kicks. This behavior in rabbits is often referred to as “boxing” or “dancing.” When rabbits kick in this manner, they are usually expressing excitement, joy, or trying to get attention. It is part of normal rabbit communication and social bonding.

According to The Spruce Pets, this type of kicking by rabbits can signify different emotions depending on the context. For example, rapid kicking while lying down may indicate contentment, while repeated kicking towards another rabbit could signal aggression. Overall, this back leg kicking is a common way for rabbits to express themselves.

There are some similarities between the kicking behaviors of cats and rabbits. Both animals use their powerful hind legs to kick repeatedly in certain situations. However, the kicking generally serves different purposes – for cats it is often hunting-related, while for rabbits it is more about communication. The rapid, alternating kicks of excited rabbits echo the kicking cats use to target prey, even though the animals kick for different reasons.

Possible Reasons for Kicking

Cats kick their hind legs for several possible reasons:

  • Instinct – Kicking is an instinctual behavior for cats that originates from their hunting skills. They kick their prey with their powerful hind legs to kill or disable it before eating. The kicking motion allows them to use their sharp claws and strong leg muscles effectively against prey like mice or birds.
  • Play – Cats often kick their legs when playing excitedly. This is especially common in kittens and younger cats. Kicking and biting are typical play behaviors as they pretend to hunt. It allows them to practice hunting skills. But even adult cats will bunny kick when feeling energetic and playful.
  • Stretching – Cats kick their legs to stretch their leg, hip, and back muscles. The motion helps them fully extend their legs and work the joints. This is important for flexibility and agility. Cats may kick while lying down or standing.
  • Communication – When interacting with other animals or people, kicking can communicate different meanings. Fast kicks with claws exposed can signal aggression or overstimulation. Slower kicks without claws may indicate friendliness and wanting to play. It’s a way for a cat to express its current mood.

Most commonly, housecats kick their legs when playing or stretching. It utilizes their powerful back legs and serves an important purpose for their health and natural instincts.

When to Be Concerned

While kicking in cats is often normal behavior, excessive or abnormal kicking can sometimes indicate an underlying health issue. If your cat’s kicking seems disproportionate, obsessive, or is causing self-injury, it’s important to have them examined by a veterinarian. Some signs to watch for include:

– Frequent and intense attacks on the tail or hind legs that cause wounds or bald patches (vcahospitals.com)

– Aggressive kicking coupled with frantic running, hiding, or other signs of distress

– Lethargy or personality changes associated with the kicking

– Persistent kicking directed at the head

– Excessive chewing or licking of the legs before or after kicking

If your cat displays any of these concerning behaviors, schedule an exam with your veterinarian right away. They can check for underlying medical conditions like neurological disorders, arthritis, infections, or skin irritation that may be causing pain or discomfort and leading to abnormal kicking.

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