Raising Kittens to be Cats that Don’t Bite
by Rita Reimers, Multi Cat Behavior Expert
My kitten bites while playing, what do I do? This is a very common question I get from new kitten owners.
Everyone knows that when you adopt a kitten, you are getting a super-charged non-stop bundle of raw energy. There is nothing more entertaining than watching a kitten (or kittens) running around joyfully playing with everything in sight. Often that involves putting things in their mouths, just like human children.
So, what can you do when that sweet little kitten decides that taking a bite out of your hands and feet is just too tempting to resist?
Why a Kitten Bites
A client of mine recently contacted me to ask that very question: why is my kitten biting my hands and feet all the time? He is uncontrollable!
There are a few reasons why kittens are prone to biting behavior:
- Teething – When a kitten is getting his adult teeth, much like a human baby, he will feel the need to chew in order to help soothe his gums.
- Play Aggression – Kittens use play aggression with their litter mates to sharpen their hunting instincts and to learn proper social etiquette. They learn good/bad play behaviors from one another. You may even notice the bitten kitten scolding the one who bites too hard.
- Pent Up Energy – A kitten that has been alone all day while you are at work will have a lot of pent up energy that he needs to burn off. He may grab your hands and feet in an attempt to get your attention.
- Over Stimulation – When your kitten has had enough petting or playtime, he might bite or grab your hand to communicate that it’s time to stop.
Those are the natural reasons why a kitten may be prone to bite, but there is another very common reason why kittens bite and play too rough… We have taught them to!
No, you are saying. I would not teach my kitten to bite me! Ah but yes probably you have, and you didn’t even realize it. When we bring these little ones home, we oooo and ahhh when we see those cute whiskered faces. Then we pretty much let those tiny feet and teeth do whatever they want:
- Oh he grabbed my hands, how cute.
- He’s putting my fingers in his mouth, how sweet.
- Look at him going after my toes under the covers, how funny.
- My kitten bites my toes, but it doesn’t really hurt.
Correcting those Kitten Bites
Cute, Sweet, and Funny as those actions may be in a tiny 12 week old kitten, they are most unpleasant when an older kitten (or adult cat) does them. They can actually cause you great pain and injury. More than one cat has ended up in the shelter for excessive biting, merely because their owners did not know how to fix it.
Most of the people who call me with about biting issues will begrudgingly admit they did play rough with their cat when he was a kitten. They never realized the potential long term behavioral consequences. This is especially common if the cat grew up (or is growing up) as an only kitten, with no sibling around to learn appropriate play and biting behaviors with.
Teaching your kitten that rough play and biting of your hands and feet really isn’t that difficult, but it does need consistency if it is going to work. It is important to provide the correct play stimulation for your kitten, while discouraging those unwanted play behaviors.
The Right Way to Play
Set your kitten up for success by:
- Teaching your kitten that hands are for petting and love, toys are for playing. Never use your bare hands or feet to initiate playtime, unless you want him to be a biter as an adult cat.
- Using interactive toys such as fishing pole type toys with feathers, that allow you to mimic their hunting behaviors with them.
- Tossing little balls and other small toys that your kitten can chase after, both to use up his extra energy and to also satisfy his natural hunting instincts.
- Offering plush toys that your kitten can hold onto and kick with his legs is a great outlet for pent up energy, and is something your kitten can bite and scratch to his heart’s content.
- Playing with your kitten everyday, a few times a day. Keep these play sessions short, 5 to 10 minutes, so your cat doesn’t get bored.
- Getting a second kitten of about the same age, so they can use up that kitten energy and play aggression on one another.
Discouraging Kitten Bites
So now we know how to play with your kitten without using your bare hands and feet, but what if he is still intent on biting? Showing your cat that the consequence of his biting is that he loses your attention should correct the problem. But again, you must be consistent in your actions.
- When your kitten does bite you, freeze, sit still, and do not interact with him. If you pull your hand away, he will think it is a game and he will grab after it. Your fleshy hands feel like prey, and he would like nothing more than to catch his prey and sink his teeth into it.
- If he is very insistent on biting, put him down on the floor and just walk away. It is time to end the play session and withdraw your attention for a little while. Your kitten will quickly learn that biting you causes immediate removal of attention.
- Use a word like OW or NO to let your kitten know that his behavior is not acceptable. Be consistent about what you say; it is most effective to choose one word and always use that word. My cats know the word “easy” means they are getting too rough and they stop what they are doing.
- It has been said that using a water bottle is a good deterrent for discouraging biting; I must disagree. The use of a water bottle will only cause your kitten to fear you, and to associate you with the unpleasantness of being squirted with water. It is far more effective to use a word (OW) and an action (withdrawing attention) to get the point across.
- And of course it should go without saying, no yelling at your kitten and please no hitting of your kitten. He will only learn to fear you, and your bond will surely be destroyed if you hit your cat or scream at him. I once had a behavior client couple where the husband used fear and intimidation with his cat by screaming in his face and hitting the cat. And it showed. The cat would cower whenever the husband entered the room, and then would bite if the owner tried to pet him. Oh, it made me very angry once I found out!
- You might also want to read some of the tips in my Catster Magazine article, Stop Scratching That’s Destructive
Kittens and Cats DO want your Love
Cats really do want to please you, they want your attention, and they want your love and affection. Teaching them as kittens what behaviors are good while discouraging the ones that “bad” will help him grow into being a loving cat companion to you, for many years to come. Without biting!
Great information. I volunteer for a rescue with the cats & kittens. Foster some.
Rita Reimers says
Thanks so much Robin, and thank you for fostering!
Kim Rudge says
Thanks for this,
We have a kitten that thinks we are his prey. He stalks us, and if we don’t manage to distract him he will launch and clamp on. At this stage we are starting to look like torture victims.
We play with him for hours every day. He just wants attention all day long. We put him in Base camp (our bedroom) when we work because he won’t leave us alone.
The stalking and biting is random..it can be while we are sat watching TV.
We usually say ‘no’ firmly, but there is no way to ‘walk away’, he would just follow, stalk and attack again.
People are telling us that we need to get a second cat. Is that true? Is there no way to train him?
What we know about him is that we rescued him at 8 weeks, we were already the 3rd or 4th owners of him. He got taken from his mum way too early and was passed around. Others (Ukrainian refugees that were living with us at the time)did play rough with him, we tried to stop it, but we couldn’t seem to get the message across.
We are at a bit of a loss. He is now about 10 months old, is very big and strong and isn’t stopping.
Kim, Matt and our crazy kitten Lughan.
Rita Reimers says
Bless you for taking in this little founding. My guess from what you are saying is he never learned how to “cat” properly from his cat mom and siblings. This often happens when kittens are separated from their family too young. Plus, at 10 months, he is still a kitten, albeit a large kitten which I am sure makes these “attacks” more serious.
You are doing a lot of things right, but it sounds like a solid plan is needed. Yes, another kitten COULD solve the issue, or you could have an introduction issue on top of the biting (Or they could bond right away, you just never know which way it will go). We’ve seen this issue come up quite a lot with singleton kittens.
If you would like to schedule a behavior session with us, Linda and I would be happy to put together a plan of action. I think we would just need the 30-minute session. You could schedule a free 15-minute Pre Consult meeting with us to see if you like us first. Either way, here is the link to the scheduling page: https://catbehavioralliance.com/cat-behavior-consultations/
Keep up the things you are doing,