Gajdoš Kmecová, N., Pet'ková, B., Kottferová, J. et al. 2021. Are these cats playing? A closer look at social play in cats and proposal for a psychobiological approach and standard terminology. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8, 712310.
Play in domestic cats has been largely studied using a contextual approach, i.e., with a focus on what the cat is playing with, such as an object, itself or another cat. Such classification may be superficially attractive scientifically but it limits the ability to investigate function. We propose consideration of a psychobiological approach, which increases attention on hypotheses about the motivational and emotional state of the actors, may be more valuable. This may be particularly important in the case of intercat exchanges that might involve play, for example when one cat may chase another which does not want to be chased, the general interaction should not be considered playful. Key to improving the scientific study of such interactions is the need to adopt a common terminology, thus we synthesise a common ethogram from the published literature. Secondly at the heart of a psychobiological approach is a consideration of both the affective state and motivational goal of each actor in an interaction, since they may not be congruent, and recognition of the hypothetical nature of any such functional classification. However, this bottom up approach provides valuable insights that can be tested. We argue that when one cat treats another as an object or prey, such activity relates to the former cat seeking to learn about its own skills in relation to manipulating its physical environment (prey are not considered part of the complex social relationships and thus social environment of an individual). However, when interaction between cats is reciprocal it may function to facilitate social learning and may be best described as mutual social play. It needs to be recognised that interactions are dynamic and thus our classification of a situation needs to be flexible. So mutual social play may turn into a form of non-reciprocal interaction. We conclude by outlining priorities for future research to help us improve our ability to answer the question “Are these cats playing?” in a wider range of contexts.