- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
When your cat plays with a stuffed animal or a kitty friend, you may see them pull a move called the bunny kick. In a nutshell, they restrain the toy with their front paws and batter it with their hind legs in a thumping motion.
To you, bunny kicks may seem like overkill, but they’re a natural feline behavior. Cats often start bunny kicking during kittenhood as they play-fight their littermates. These kicks may happen alongside other common cat behaviors like pouncing, biting, and scratching.
“Cats never let go of their hunting instincts,” says Sabrina Kong, DVM, veterinary consultant at We Love Doodles. For domestic cats, these hunting instincts generally come out during play, but occasionally cats can get a little too aggressive with bunny kicks.
Here’s a quick guide on how to tell when kicking become a problem and what you can do to address the behavior.
Why Do Cats Bunny Kick?
Cats may bunny kick for a number of reasons. It all depends on the context.
- They’re feeling excited or stressed: A sudden bunny kick can point to a change in mood. The most pampered pet cats generally still have a drive to hunt, and they may have a lot of fun attacking and “killing” their toys—even on the spur of the moment. On the other hand, a sudden bunny kick can also point to stress. Anxious, scared or angry cats may use bunny kicks to fight back.
- It’s one of their natural defenses: Hiking your legs up to your chest and kicking straight out would require some athletic skill, or at least practice, for most people. But feline flexibility makes bunny kicks easy for cats. A paunch on their belly called the primordial pouch also protects their internal organs from other cats’ kicks.
- The bunny kick is a deadly hunting maneuver: When holding prey or an attacker with their front legs, cats have their back legs free to use all of their force and avoid being attacked on their stomach, says Dr. Kong. The claws on their back paws only add to the damage from each blow.
How Do I Know When A Cat Bunny Kick Is Aggressive?
Since bunny kicks are originally a fighting move, your cat can use them to hurt as well as play. Aggressive cats may ambush other pets and attack them with their legs. They may also use the move against you if you pet their stomach when they’re in a bad mood.
Not sure how to tell if your cat’s kicks come from a playful or aggressive mood? One of the best ways to figure out their intent involves considering their body language.
- Startled or scared: If your cat has been startled or scared, they might bunny kick to protect themselves. They may tuck their head in and flatten their ears to protect their face. You’ll likely hear some growling or hissing, too.
- Issuing a warning: Some cats may also attack other pets or people they consider intruders, especially intruders who stray too close to the food bowl. Before pouncing and bunny kicking, your cat will likely give a long, low meow as a warning. They may also arch their back and stiffen their legs to seem intimidating.
- Ready to play: Playful cats may also do stalking behaviors or chase each other around the house. However, you’ll notice they have a loose and relaxed posture, and they’ll probably make happy chirping noises.
- Using force: Another clue to help you decide if your cat is playing? Consider how much force they’re using, says Heather Alvey, CFTBS, cat behaviorist at Felidae Behavior Consulting. An aggressive cat will bunny kick you with everything they’ve got. If they’re ripping your arm to shreds with bites and scratches, it’s probably intentional.
Is it OK for cats to bunny kick each other?
Sometimes cats who live together will release their inner kitten and start wrestling each other.
Typically, cats learn in their kitten days if their bunny kicks are too hard when their playmates run away or bite back. They’ll either learn to hold back or start bunny kicking toys instead. So, most adult cats know how to play without hurting each other.
But if your cats are fighting for real, they’ll bunny kick each other much harder, and you may need to split them up.
“If the cats are taking turns and you don’t see any other indication of aggression, then it’s OK,” Dr. Kong says. She adds, though, that you’ll definitely want to intervene if you see any concerning behaviors like hissing, growling, or screaming.
Is it OK for cats to bunny kick you?
On the other hand, your cat shouldn’t bunny kick you.
“It’s never ok to allow your cat to bite or scratch you. We don’t want to reinforce that we are toys or prey,” says Alvey.
Remember, your cat may be adorable—especially when doing a bunny kick—but they can still hurt you. A fierce kicking session can seriously bruise or cut up your arm.
How To Avoid Getting Bunny Kicked By Your Cat
Alvey has several tips and tricks for avoiding those ferocious kicks.
Use appropriate toys
It’s important to offer your cat toys small enough to easily grab with their mouth. If your cat has no suitable toys, they may try to make you their plaything instead.
“Never use hands or feet as toys while you play. I like using wand toys as a way to keep a cat away from sensitive body parts,” Alvey says.
Resist the tummy rubs
Unlike dogs, cats don’t always show you their belly as an invitation to touch or stroke it.
They’re actually showing you they trust you by displaying the most sensitive part of their anatomy, according to Alvey. “When you reach down to touch it, you are breaking that trust.”
A startled or betrayed cat may bunny kick you in defense of their body and personal space.
Don’t punish your cat
Bunny kicking is a natural behavior for cats, and it’s not fair to punish them for acting on their instincts.
Yes, kittens can teach each other to soften their bunny kicks by biting or howling at each other. But you’re much larger than a five-pound kitten, so a shout or a swat from you is much more serious.
“Yelling or striking your cat will only lead to a breakdown of your relationship and cause your cat fear and stress,” says Alvey. And of course, stressed cats are more likely to behave aggressively in the future.
While you shouldn’t punish your cat, you don’t want to sit there and let them tear apart your ankle, either. When your cat bunny kicks you, Alvey recommends removing yourself from the situation right away.
“If you are injured, quietly get up and walk away,” Alvey says. “If your cat is overstimulated and wants to continue the interaction, you may need to go to another room and shut the door behind you, giving them some time to cool down.”
Giving your cat space can help improve their trust for you, not to mention your relationship.