Veterinarians have conducted the sort of research that most anyone on the internet would sign up for: Watching over a hundred videos of cats hanging out with other cats. The lessons learned from their marathon viewing may help owners better identify when their cats are playfully tussling or about to get into a serious fight.
The study was led by Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová, a veterinary doctor and researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia. As part of her thesis, and as an admitted lover and owner of cats, Gajdoš-Kmecová had been especially interested in a question that many owners of multiple felines have pondered: are my cats playing or fighting? While some researchers have recently begun studying this sort of intercat behavior, it remains an under-explored topic.
Her team, which includes cat behaviorists in the UK, decided to combine standard methods of studying animal behavior with modern citizen science—in other words, watching videos of other people’s cats. All told, the team collected 165 videos, with 63 clips submitted by owners and 102 videos downloaded from YouTube. After removing clips that were judged too ambiguous or missing important information like sound, they were left with 105 videos of 210 cats.
“This provided us with samples of real behaviors in real-world situations from domestic environments, rather than interpretations of behaviors provided by owners in questionnaires, but at the same time was a quick and accessible way to collect the data by simply recruiting cat owners—who love to videotape their cats—via social media or typing the behaviors of interest into YouTube,” Gajdoš-Kmecová told Gizmodo in an email.
Like so many things about cats, their interactions with each another weren’t simple to pin down. By the end, the team grouped cat-on-cat behavior into three categories: playing, fighting, or somewhere in between.
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“Many owners would probably agree with me that sometimes it is very difficult to decide between the two mentioned options, and our intermediate or ‘something in between’ category justifies this feeling—we believe that intercat interactions are not black-and-white events,” Gajdoš-Kmecová said. “One of the examples can be interaction which starts as mutual social play, when both cats want to play and are enjoying the interaction, but then one of them stops feeling like that and the character of interaction changes into an intermediate category or even an agonistic one.”
The team’s findings, published Thursday in Scientific Reports, do seem to offer some answers into the nature of intercat interaction. When cats are especially noisy with each other, for instance, they’re likely openly antagonistic. Conversely, when cats are wrestling for long periods of time without sound or any apparent injury, it’s almost certainly playful (this kind of behavior also seems more common in young cats). And interactions that are somewhere in between might feature both some wrestling and vocalizations. Intermediate cat interactions also appear to include prolonged periods where the cats will exchange performing behaviors like laying back with their belly upwards, stalking and pouncing on each other, or approaching and grooming the other. And the more reciprocal these behaviors are, such as taking turns to chase the other without extended breaks, the more likely that they are to be true mutual play.
Gajdoš-Kmecová notes that cats’ attitudes toward one another aren’t set in stone. Even if cats do sometimes fight, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship is breaking down, for instance—like people, cats seem capable of having short-term arguments. What does matter is the overall tenor of their interactions. If cats are regularly rubbing against each other, sleeping in close contact, sharing resources, and greeting each other with ears erect, she says, then the occasional tiff is probably nothing to worry about.
For Gajdoš-Kmecová and her colleagues, this study is only the beginning of solving what she calls the “enigma of intercat interactions,” especially the more intermediate kinds. They’re already planning a new study in collaboration with researchers in Belgium, which will of course allow them to keep watching plenty of cat videos.
“I am very excited to continue in this study with a growing team of researchers because I know that there is A LOT to reveal about the intraspecific social behavior of cats,” she wrote. “So for me, as a researcher, this study is like a cliffhanger episode to another highly rated series.”