It is difficult to think about cats, so graceful and lithe, without also thinking about their playfulness. The sight of a small kitten leaping and pouncing sideways onto a ball, her eyes round and surprised, makes us laugh. A cat may interrupt a quiet afternoon of reading by chewing the corner of our magazine. Feline play is adorable and endearing — and of course, as cat owners can attest, quite frustrating at times.

As common as it is, the reasons for play behavior are not entirely understood. As with most mammals, play is seen most frequently in young cats. Among other things, it is believed to serve as practice for social and predatory behaviors that will be critical later in life. Researchers have found that kittens begin to play at approximately four weeks of age, spending most of their time playing with one another. Wrestling with other kittens helps shape the skills needed later to establish social systems with other mature cats. By the age of seven to eight weeks, kittens transfer their attention from such social play to predatory play with inanimate objects.

With all the importance that play holds in the life of a young cat, it is perhaps no surprise that inappropriate or excessive play is a common behavior problem. Seen most frequently in young kittens and juvenile cats (whose poor, unassuming owners are the “victims”), play-related aggression can be a troubling problem. Their human “prey” complain of cats pouncing on feet as they walk by, or otherwise biting, clawing and kicking while the cat is being handled or petted. Although there is no vicious intent in this behavior, it can be painful.

What can be done about play-related aggression? This common problem is actually quite easy to resolve. First, remember that kittens and cats need to play. By writing down the general times and patterns of your own cat