A Cat Clinic

Play Biting in Kittens: How to save your hands

Posted on: October 17th, 2014 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein

It’s fun to watch a small kitten at play, practicing the hunting behaviors that would allow survival in the wild. But for our domestic cats, play biting in kittens that starts out “cute” can become dangerous as the cat grows. This is especially true for a hand-raised kitten: the mother cat would normally teach what is and isn’t acceptable, in ways we humans cannot do. Here are some tips to prevent predatory play from becoming unwanted aggression:

1. Don’t permit the kitten to play with your hands. If your hand is seen as a toy, this encourages the kitten to pounce and bite.
2. Keep small toys handy. If your kitten wants to play, re-direct by tossing a toy. This will keep your little hunter busy, without harm to you.
3. Have a variety of toys that do different things: a catnip sock will let your cat attack with paws, bite and shake. Toys that are light-weight and move unpredictably are the most popular; do make sure there are no loose strings or small parts that could be swallowed and cause an obstruction. Rotate toys to maintain interest.
4. Laser lights can be fun, but always make sure they are never shined in your cat’s eyes, as they can cause damage. Behaviorists also recommend that the laser session ends “on” a toy or something your cat can physically pounce on.
5. As space (and finances) permit, cat trees and corrugated cardboard let your cat jump, perch and scratch – all good energy outlets. When possible, a cat tree that has a view of outdoor trees and maybe a bird feeder is great.
6. Food puzzles, available at pet stores and on-line, let your cat expend energy on getting food. I usually recommend this for a portion of their dry food, depending on how much dry food your cat eats and the number of cats in the household. Behaviorist Jacqui Nielson, DVM had over 16 food puzzles for her 4 cats!
7. Never use physical punishment, as this can backfire. The best thing to do is to stop play and ignore your cat until s/he calms down, or (again) re-direct play in a young cat.
8. Consider adopting a second cat. This worked well for me, when I brought two kittens into a household with my 12-year old cat. I had separate feeding, litter and sleeping areas. And, the two kittens were able to have their wild play sessions, without harm to the older cat or to me.

If aggressive behavior continues, please discuss with your veterinarian, or you may need referral to a veterinary behaviorist. But, as always, work on prevention (and distraction!) before the aggressive behavior becomes a habit with your cat.

Adapted from CatWatchNewsletter.com, by behaviorist Pamela Perry, DVM at the College of Vet Medicine at Cornell University.

For tips on clicker-training a cat to sit on a mat, watch this video – Cat Training: Ankle Biting