We have two rescued cats in our house: Gandalf (4, male), and Galadriel (“Gal” for short, 9 months). Gandalf is a really rambunctious, high-energy guy who had some issues with play aggression with us when he was younger, but has improved quite a bit after some behavioral training with him.
Seven months ago, we adopted Gal, and she and Gandalf have quickly become as close as two Hobbits on a quest. They play together, eat together, and Gandalf will even plop down next to her sometimes and groom her.
Occasionally, though, their play will get pretty rough. Gandalf has about 4 pounds on Gal, and sometimes she lets out a howling sound during these interactions. No hissing, no ears back, but definitely a sound that, to me, seems like distress.
The weird thing is, Gal doesn’t try to get away from Gandalf, and half the time, she’s the one instigating the fight. Is this actually “play”? Or is it more like the Battle of Helm’s Deep in my living room? And if the latter, what should I do? I’m fresh out of dwarves!
Thanks, King of Gondor
Dear Delightful Tolkien Nerd,
This is an excellent question and a very common one here in the Shire. After all, cattenses are tricksy, no doubt about it, and it can be difficult to tell if two kitties are engaging in a spirited little war game, or if one of them is two bops away from going full Uruk-hai on the other.
From what you’re describing, it sounds very much to me like play, however. You’re correct that Gal’s behavior during these engagements is the key to deciphering their nature.
If Gandalf were hurting or intimidating Gal, she would not only be running away in the moment itself, but also likely showing signs of an increasing lack of confidence around him generally (keeping her distance, hissing when he approached, being hyper-alert to his presence, etc.).
Instead of running away during these “fights,” though, Gal is essentially yelling, “NOBODY TOSSES A DWARF!” and charging back in. This suggests she is consenting to the game, and both willing and eager to keep it going.
If you ever get a chance to see a litter of kittens play, you’ll see a miniature version of exactly what you’re seeing your living room at Minas Tirith. Rough play between kittens is a key part of their development; it’s how they learn boundaries when interacting with their friends. When one kitten gets too aggressive with the other, the other will often get up and leave, teaching the rough-housing kitten a lesson in pulling back for harmony.
Some signs play aggression is crossing the line into fight aggression:
• prolonged or repeated hissing (the occasional short hiss is okay),
• ears flattened,
• claws extended,
• back of spine raised with hair standing up, and/or
• confrontational staring (one cat crouched down with eyes fixated on the other and their tail swatting firmly).
Also key: if the play fight always goes the same way, with one cat always being the aggressor, the fight always escalating into aggression, and the other cat always being the one to run away. The fact Gal is initiating play sessions with Gandalf herself is a clear sign she is down for the action.
In short, neither of your kitties sounds like a late-stage Smeagol about to go full Gollum, no one is heading West to the Undying Lands, and everything is peaceful in the Four Farthings.
Second breakfasts all around.