Why do cats bunny kick?
It’s all fun and games until the bunny kicking starts.
Maybe you’re playing with your cat: shaking the little fish toy, or dragging the stuffed mouse by the tail, and she got a bit too excited. Or maybe you’re petting her, thinking everything is hunky dory, until...
What is “bunny kicking” in cats?
Bunny kicking isn’t a scientific term, but it’s a good description of a particular cat behavior.
Typically, a cat will roll over on his back or side, wrap his front legs around a toy, around another cat, or (yikes!) around your arm, and vigorously kick with both hind legs, simultaneously.
It’s a natural cat hunting or defensive behavior that is perfectly acceptable when the cat is bunny kicking a toy or prey, when a cat is defending herself from an attack, or when she is play-wrestling with another cat, who is OK with the behavior.
It’s a problem when the bunny kicking involves the sensitive flesh of your hand, arm, or leg. A cat’s sharp claws can inflict serious damage on bare human flesh.
When bunny kicking is in self-defense
When a cat senses that he’s about to be attacked by another cat or a predator, the bunny kick is a terrific move.
By rolling on her side or back, she can use all four paws to defend herself. Her front legs will pull the attacker close so that she can really dig in with her hind legs.
Raking the exposed underbelly is a great tactic. Many mammals are particularly vulnerable in that spot. All the important organs are just beneath the surface of the skin with little to protect them.
Most cats don’t want to hang around for an extended battle after employing the bunny-kick move. They want to strike their opponent quickly, inflict pain or injury, and skedaddle. Hopefully, after a punishing bunny kick, the attacker will have had enough, too, and make a quick retreat.
What does the primordial pouch have to do with bunny kicking?
Interestingly, cats have built-in “armor” to protect themselves from a bunny kick from their own kind.
It’s a saggy flap of extra skin that typically runs the length of a cat’s underside called a “primordial pouch.” I’ve written an entire blog post on the primordial pouch that describes it in more detail (and also debunks myths about this unique kitty body part).
But for the purposes of this post, I’ll just say that this flabby skin is really effective at preventing the claws from a bunny-kicking cat from going too deep and damaging important organs.
When bunny kicking is all in fun
Kittens practice what they need to know as adults through play. Kittens develop hunting skills by chasing and pouncing on littermates, by stalking insects, and by “killing” their toys. Wrestling with siblings develops the muscle strength and techniques they’ll need to capture and subdue prey in the future, or to defend themselves from a real attack.
Many cats continue to play all through their lives, perhaps as a way to continue to hone their skills, or to engage in the pleasure of the “hunt” even when there is no prey or need of a meal.
Cats who are given the opportunity to fully develop social skills as kittens – by staying with their mother and littermates for at least the first 12 weeks of their lives – also learn important lessons about play with other cats.
Cat friends who have good social skills may wrestle with each other, but they’ll moderate the combat so no one gets hurt. They may bunny kick, but they’ll actively avoid injuring each other.
How can you tell if the bunny kicking is “for real” or “for fun”?How do you know the difference? For one thing, there will be no growling, hissing, or screaming if it’s all in good fun. Cats will take turns being the attacker and the victim. You’ll notice that there is no real viciousness to the battle. No one is truly “out for blood.”
You don’t need to interfere if kitty friends are keeping their own play battles under control.
Is it OK to let my cat bunny kick me?
No. You are not a fellow cat and you are not a punching bag. Even if your cat only means to bunny kick you in the name of fun, that is not your role in your relationship. All this is aside from the fact that you could get severely injured.
In general, you don’t want to incite or encourage aggressive behavior in your cat. Even if a behavior starts out as play, it can change on a dime. Cat communication can be very subtle, and even trained behaviorists can miss important social cues that another cat would easily pick up on.
Even if the bunny kicking started out all in good fun, you might miss the slight turn of the ear, or change in placement of the whiskers that indicate that your cat has changed her mind about the game.
To maintain a healthy, balanced, and happy relationship with your cat, you should never allow him to get in the habit of treating with you with any kind of aggression.
How to avoid getting bunny-kicked by your cat
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Provide toys for bunny kicking
I’m not saying your cat should never be allowed to bunny kick. She just shouldn’t be allowed to bunny kick you. Let her bunny kick to her heart’s content on a toy.
There are many catnip-infused, stuffed kick tubes on the market that are designed especially for this use. Some cats enjoy bunny kicking a stuffed animal. Offer several choices of shapes, sizes, and materials until you figure out what your cat likes.
Here are a few: I like this 15” kicker by Kitty Stix, which comes in a set of two. The Flopping Lobster is ridiculously adorable, and it is rechargeable. I also love this oversized rat by SmartyKat. It’s cheap and it’s simple, and certain cats truly enjoy ripping a stuffie to shreds.
Don’t use your hands (or feet) as toys
It’s fun to roughhouse a cute kitten with your hand. They can do little damage when they’re tiny, but tiny kittens eventually grow up to be cats. Don’t get your kitten in the habit of using your hand as a toy.
Don’t dangle small toys in front of your cat with your hand either. He may inadvertently grab your hand instead of the toy. You don’t want to reinforce the idea that your cat can sink his claws into your body parts, even by accident.
Resist the tummy
The next time a cat plops on his back, seeming to invite a belly rub, don’t. Even if your own cat enjoys a good tummy rub, it’s possible (even probable) that this flopping cat doesn’t. Remember that a plop onto the side or back can also indicate the beginning of a bunny kick.
While we don’t really know the mind of a cat, it’s possible the flopping cat was actually inviting a belly rub – at first. But for some reason, patting a cat on the tummy seems to trigger an immediate defensive reaction in a lot of cats. It’s better to enjoy all that cuteness with your eyes, not your hands.
Learn to read cat body language
Become an observer of cats in general. Quite often people will say something like, “that bite came out of nowhere!” when, in fact, the cat gave plenty of warning that she was no longer enjoying whatever it was that the person was doing to her. We humans don’t speak cat very well.
Petting is a funny thing with cats. Humans love to pet, and many cats enjoy receiving pets, but not all. Enjoyment or even tolerance of petting varies dramatically between cats, and even for an individual cat, from petting session to petting session. Read this post, “How to pet a cat,” to further educate yourself.
(Also, read about what to do if a cat bites or scratches you in this post.)
What to do if you’re in the middle of getting bunny kicked
It’s hard to think clearly when you’re in the middle of being shredded by your cat’s hind claws. It’s good to read this now, so you can have a plan in mind the next time you find yourself tangled up in angry cat.
I know this is next to impossible. You’re in pain and all you want to do is pull your hand or foot away. But movement is exciting to a cat. Yank your hand, and your kitty may just dig her claws in deeper.
If you move, you also make the whole bunny kicking episode more fun. He may be more inclined, not less, to do it again next time the opportunity arises. The whole idea is to make bunny kicking your body parts as boring as possible.
Don’t talk. Don’t pet
Noise and touching also contribute to excitement, which could lead to increased kicking vigor. Your goal is to bring the energy level down to zero.
Don’t punish or yell at your cat
Bunny kicking is a natural behavior. You should never punish your cat for doing something he was born to do.
Punishing your cat for behaviors you don’t enjoy doesn’t work anyway. You may interrupt the behavior this one time, but the only thing your cat really learns from punishment is that you are unpredictable and not to be trusted.
And you may still get bunny kicked the next time.
Distract your cat with a toy
If you have the wherewithal in the middle of a bunny-kicking episode to reach for a toy that is more appropriate than your hand or foot, all the power to you. Ideally, you would toss a small ball or other toy away from your body, in the hopes that your cat will lose interest in you, and chase the toy.
And, if you can do that, you’ve got more personal fortitude than me!
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 MS, Wailani. “Why Does My Cat Kick Her Back Legs?” Vetstreet, 30 Dec. 2014, http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/why-does-my-cat-kick-her-back-legs.
 Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Cats Do the Bunny Kick - Part 2.” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 3 June 2021, https://catbehaviorassociates.com/why-cats-do-the-bunny-kick/2/.
 “Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 24 July 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-aggression.