How to tell if your cat is playing or angry

by cherylone

Did you know that the biting your cat does when you pet them is a love nip? Did you know the puffed tail might not mean they are angry?

Whether you are a long-time cat lover, or if you are just starting out, cats can be difficult to interpret when they are trying to tell you something or when they follow their instincts. Read on to find out if they are playing with you, or angry with you.

A cat rubs their face against your leg and then suddenly claws the back of your leg.

What do you think the cat is trying to say?

What it means when a cat digs their claws into your clothes or skin--

Usually a happy cat uses their claws to get attention, grab things, or hold on. If you have a cat on your lap and they suddenly dig in their claws, it usually means they are feeling like they are falling and they don’t want to leave the lap.  When a cat grabs at something with their claws extended just enough to ‘catch’ the item, they are usually playing or trying to get your attention.  Of course, there is always the frightened cat, if you are holding a cat and they dig their claws in, it generally means they are frightened and/or don’t want you to put them down. 

Kneading--or big paws--or bent paws--or whatever you might call it when a cat pushes down on something with their claws out (if they have them) and their toes spread and then curl their paw away from the item (they are usually purring when they do this).  This movement is the same movement they use to make their mother’s milk flow when they are tiny babies.  It is a sign of comfort and contentment.  So when those giant claws stick in your arm or leg and the cat is purring, remembering they are not trying to hurt you, they are telling you they love you (or they might knead the soft blanket on your lap, or the soft pillow--you get the idea). 

When a cat is really truly angry, they will dig their claws in very deep and leave gouges that will bleed and sometimes might be bad enough to need stitches (and their ears will be back and they usually will be growling).  They might try to warn you first with growls and a quick scratch and/or nip, but if you don't listen, watch out.  But, if a cat scratches enough to cause you to bleed, BEFORE you get angry, look to see how deep the scratch is, if it’s not that deep, then the cat was playing or trying to get your attention (or sending a warning).  So for the question above, what is the right answer?  Well, it actually could be all of the above depending on what you are doing and where you are standing. 

With ears up and whiskers forward, this guy is curious about something, so his claws just mean he wants to hold on.

If a cat bites you without breaking the skin, is it angry with you?

What about the bites?

Nips--these are little bites that don’t really break the skin and don’t really hurt (they mostly pinch).  Cats nip for many different reasons.  They might nip because they really like the petting you are giving them and they are nipping their love to you.  So when that kitty has been purring and kneading on you and suddenly nips, don’t scold them, they are trying to say they love you.

Another reason for nipping might be the cat’s way of warning you about something.  A cat will nip without really hurting to warn that they don’t like the things you are doing.  When a cats nips to warn, they are generally not purring, not rubbing, and not kneading on anything.  Often, they have their ears back, which is a sign they are getting angry.  A cat will nip at someone they don’t trust or another cat they don't want around. 

Bite--a cat will truly bite hard enough to break the skin with one or more teeth and cause bleeding when they are frightened, in pain, or fighting.  When a cat does at least two of the following things, they are biting for real:  ears back, growling, claws extended, tail puffed and fur on back raised, eyes big and dark.  That is why you often see fur fly when cats are really fighting with other cats.  They are biting hard, clawing hard, and digging in with everything they have.  Often they will get the cat down and then use their back claws as well as their front claws.  Cats can hurt other cats badly during a major cat fight.  The only way to break up a cat fight is with cold water shot at both of the cats.  In the house, you can use a spray bottle with water in it and outside you can use the hose.  (If you only spray one cat, the other will take advantage of their surprise and can hurt them seriously so be sure to spray them both at the same time.) 

Now, what is the answer to the poll above?  Well, if the cat bites without breaking the skin--it's usually a love bite--or they might be trying to play with you.  If they have their ears back when they do it, they are warning you.

 In this first one, he looks pretty angry, but his ears are not back so I think he's just practicing his evil glare.  In the second one, they seem to be really fighting mad, however if you look closely at the paws of the gray one, you can see there are no claws extended.

Is a cat afraid of you if they run away when you approach?

What does it mean when they run from you?

If a cat runs from you--they may be frightened. Check for the following signs:  if they have their ears back and their eyes are big, they are angry;  if their tail is fluffed way out and their fur is standing up on their back, they are generally frightened (if you have ever startled your cat, you will see the tail and fur fluff because they are frightened and feel they must defend themselves); if they draw blood, they are usually not playing because they are defending themselves or they are frightened or in pain. 

If a cat runs from you--they may be playing. If they purr and then run off, they are playing; if they catch you with their claws or teeth gently, they are playing;  if they look normal and they run,and then duck back, they are playing; if they grab at something and then race off, they are playing.

If you assume your cat is playing and he is angry or frightened, he might harm you if you try to pet him or pick him up.  Be sure to look for the warning signs before you assume anything about the cat. Oh, and the answer to the above is Cats run for many reasons, sometimes you have to look at their face before you assume.

Now these guys don't look at all happy

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Warning signs that the cat is angry

Remember the warning signs are ears back, large eyes, claws out, fur on their back is straight up and their tail is fluffed out, and they may be growling.

If you saw an injured cat, what would you do?

If your cat is injured


Try to understand that if your cat, or any cat, is hurt in any way, they cannot understand when you tell them you are only trying to help.  All they know is they are in pain and you touching or moving them makes the pain worse.  A cat may bite, scratch, try to run, growl, or even squeeze themselves into areas you didn’t think they could fit if they are frightened and in pain.  The best way to lift a cat that is injured in order to protect yourself is to wrap the cat in a large bath towel (make sure the towel is big enough to wrap around the cat at least twice-and don’t cover the head) then hold the towel tightly in your arms like you would a baby.  Try not to move too much and try not to hold or touch the injured area if you know where it is.  If the cat is trying to get away from you, toss the towel onto the cat and grab them on their sides, then wrap as quickly as you can.  Don’t be surprised if they get a few digs in before you get them secured. 

Warning:  If you do not know the injured cat, you are better off calling for help because you don't know what diseases the cat might have picked up before it got injured. 

Oh yes, the answer to the above question is wrap them in a thick towel and take them to the nearest vet.  Of course you could call your local animal shelter and ask for help as well; especially if it is a strange cat.

Another way to handle an ill or injured cat is to purchase special gloves.

If you prefer not to use one of your towels to handle an injured animal, you might want to go to one of these sites (Walmart, Amazon, Target, PetCo, or PetSmart) and purchase thick gloves that you can use to handle the injured animal.  Purchase early and keep a pair handy  for emergencies.  Also, you can contact your nearest Emergency Vet Hospital and get their emergency number.  Keep it handy for those times when emergencies strike.











Note:  If your cat begins to act different, get him/her to the vet immediately!


If you were injured and couldn't tell anyone, would you be afraid if a giant grabbed at you?

Knowing the whats and whys of cat behavior is the first step.

Once you know why the cat is doing what they are doing, you can easily know when they are playing and when they are not.  Playing cats can injure you without meaning to do so, and when they do, you shouldn’t punish them because that will make them afraid to play with you again.  Try to understand that they didn’t mean it.  When they are playing with you, try not to get too rough because the rougher you get, the rougher the cat will get.  They love to rough-house.

I don't think I need to answer the above question; however, the answer is Well, maybe, I'll have to think about it--No, I'm just kidding, it is YES, wouldn't you?

Updated: 10/26/2018, cherylone
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cherylone on 03/28/2014

Hi Telesto, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Glad you liked my article and read more of them.

Telesto on 03/14/2014

Excellent article. Thank you.

cherylone on 06/01/2012

Thank you katiem2 for the comment and the sharing. I truly appreciate the help. Glad to hear you still have the little kitty you found. I love black cats, I have had several through out my time, and will probably have more.

katiem2 on 05/31/2012

What helpful facts about cats playing or angry. I have three cats, one of which my daughter and I found on a scenic bike path, it was such a sickly kitten, we brought it home, it road in my tank top all the way I thought it was near death. It is still with us, 2 years old now, the black cat jellybean in my signs of spring wizz, She is such a hoot, she plays many of the games you've mentioned and often does the I'm gonna get you scratch bit, I now better understand that she is mostly playing. I love cats, great tips, gonna share this one far and wide. :) K

cherylone on 05/24/2012

I'm sorry to hear that. I know that she is well loved and living the life of luxury. So she will be very happy. I hope you are doing well, I know what a weak kitty can do to you.

FloraBreenRobison on 05/23/2012

Amy is at the point in her life where she is slowing down. She isn't strong enough for any more surgery, because the anathesia (however that is supposed to be spelled) is too strong for her now. So I will just have to see.

cherylone on 05/23/2012

And you thought you couldn't read her mind--cats communicate in so many ways, but we work really hard to understand, and, we usually get it right (after a few trial and errors). Thanks for stopping by and commenting. How's Amy?

FloraBreenRobison on 05/23/2012

I wish I could read my cat's mind. I can tell when she is playing vs. angry-mo meds please!- but I cannot tell what food she wants. If she would tell me, I wouldn't make so many plates dirty guessing. I know this for sure-human food tastes better, food tastes better on someone else's plate, small portions are best, and fresh onby no matter what

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