This is a behavior that can be seen during play and also during an aggressive encounter. The cat rolls onto her back or side and kicks with her hind legs. The motive behind the often-called “bunny kick” depends on the immediate circumstances.
The Playtime Bunny Kick by Your Cat
You may be playing with your cat when she rolls over, grasps your hand or wrist with her front paws and then rakes her back legs down your arm. This is seen more often when cat parents use their hands to wrestle with their cats in play. The cat may kick out of enthusiastic playtime, but your hand and arm may become more of an opponent than a toy because of the movements made toward your cat (prey tries to get away but opponents move toward her) and the size of your hand versus the size of a typical cat toy. Your cat may get carried away with play and begin doing a more intense hind leg kick or she may even flip from playtime to defensive aggression. A cat may also kick with her hind legs when playing with a large toy or stuffed animal. Some toy manufacturers make “kick bag” toys for cats whose playtime routine typically involves the bunny kick. These toys are essentially a long tube sock filled with catnip-infused stuffing.
Even though your cat may not seriously scratch you if she kicks with her hind legs, it’s not a good practice to use your hands as toys and give her the opportunity to scratch or even bite. It sends a mixed message about whether it’s acceptable to bite and scratch skin.
Cat companions may engage in hind leg kicking as they wrestle with each other. You’ll know it’s play and not aggression because they will display inhibited kicking without intending to injure each other. Biting and kicking will not have the level of ferocity that would be seen if the cats were engaged in a true battle. During playtime you shouldn’t hear growling, hissing or screaming. You’ll also see the cats taking turns being the mock aggressor.
The Defensive Bunny Kick by Your Cat
The more serious (and not fun) bunny kick can be displayed, as mentioned above, when you use your hands as toys, but it can also occur when the cat doesn’t want interaction with you. The typical set-up may be that you begin petting her and she rolls onto her back, gets a good grasp of your hand with her front paws and then kicks at your wrist with her hind legs. In many cases, the cat will have given other warnings that she doesn’t want to be petted, issuing a warning nip at your fingers, trying to move away, pawing at you with her front paws or even meowing. Sometimes though, those pre-kick signals don’t occur and the cat just rolls onto her side and begins kicking. Your wrist, especially if you aren’t wearing long sleeves, is a pretty vulnerable spot so even if your cat shows some restraint in her kicking, it’s going to hurt!