Kittens are adorable, but when they are around four months of age, a dark side usually emerges - a side that involves seemingly diabolical aggression. Confused owners are often left wondering why their cute little ball of fluff has suddenly turned into a feline Jekyll-and-Hyde character.
In an instant, a kitten may turn aggressive, inflicting painful scratches and bites. Sometimes this problem becomes so acute that it causes the owners to surrender the kitten to a shelter. They regard it as schizophrenic - a hopeless cause.
What these people do not understand is that kittens have an in-built drive to play rough. As troubling as the attacks can be, play aggression is a normal part of kittens' development. This type of aggression can be contained or diverted and should never be the reason to give up on a kitten. In time, play aggression will diminish and will eventually disappear. It is almost gone by the time most cats are around 1 year of age but may persist a while longer in others.
Play behavior is considered a rehearsal of adult roles and is helpful, though not absolutely necessary, for kittens' future development. During the process of rough and tumble play, kittens exercise just about every sense (and muscle) in their bodies, helping to prepare the youngsters for the life that lies ahead. In nature, a kitten that has played rough may have a jump-start on an unrehearsed rival and will be better equipped to chase and pin down prey.
Types of Aggressive Play
There are at least two distinct types of aggressive play behavior by kittens, and possibly a third.
How It Affects You
Imagine you are sitting in an armchair at home, peacefully petting your kitten, when its play aggressive mode surfaces. First, a sideways glance, and then a switching tail tip, and finally the attack. The kitten latches onto your hand with its needle-sharp teeth, simultaneously stabbing at you with its hind claws. You may try to assuage this "savage" attack by further petting, but it doesn't work. Scratched, punctured, and nursing your wounds, you swear the kitten is malicious and has it in for you. Moments later you have your young friend's affection back as if nothing has transpired.
Or, you might step around a corner only to have your kitten pounce at your feet or ankles where it proceeds to rain blows and bites. Your first reaction may be surprise but pretty soon this gives way to pain and resentment…
Luckily for us, at least we don't seem to be the subjects of juvenile cats' sexual rehearsals, but the attack-retreat and predatory behaviors alone are sometimes more than enough.
What to do
The really good news is that play aggression is a passing phase. However, don't let yourself become a victim. That can create dominance issues later in certain cats. Also, rough play can cause injuries to older people, whose skin is more delicate.
You should always manage your cat properly, avoid unwanted incidents, and provide suitable outlets for its biological needs. In this way, you and your cat will be able to live together in mutual harmony without having to run the gauntlet each day.