My Kitten Has a Bad Biting Habit

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger gives advice on how to redirect kitten's actions through behavior modification.

By Marilyn Krieger | Posted: November 27, 2009, 3 a.m. EST

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Q: I have a 7-month-old American Shorthair who has developed a terrible biting habit. He bites me during play and other times. I have tried squirting him with a water bottle, but I can't have it with me all the time. He is an indoor cat. I inadvertently started playing with him as a 6-week-old kitten with my hands instead of using toys on sticks.
Help! I am seriously considering giving him away or making him an outdoor cat. My arms are covered in scars from the bites.

A: Your youngster is having boundary issues that were originally caused by being removed too early from his mom and siblings and/or being played with using hands instead of toys. Cats should stay with their mom and siblings until they are at least 12 weeks old so that they can learn acceptable boundaries and socialization skills through play and other interactions. Unfortunately, there are circumstances beyond our control where kittens are separated too early from their cat-family.

Using hands to play with kittens sends the wrong message. The kitten doesn’t have a sense of boundaries. He doesn’t understand why biting is encouraged in some activities, but discouraged for others. 

Squirting your cat with water isn’t the most effective or best way to change this behavior. A squirt of water might deter him in the moment, but won’t permanently stop the behavior. Instead, you can retrain your cat through behavior modification and by changing the way you interact and play with him.

Start sending your message to him by giving your kitten time-outs whenever he bites or is about to bite. Cats usually warn us before they are about to bite. Watch his ears, eyes and body position. As soon as you are aware that your kitten intends to bite you, or if he is already biting you, give him a time-out. Stop interacting completely with him. Simply stop all discussions and disappear. These kinds of time-outs aren’t long; usually a few minutes are all that are needed for time outs associated with play aggression.

Additionally, be aware of the circumstances that usually trigger him to bite. If he has a tendency to bite when he’s overstimulated or excited, ease back on the intensity of the play. If you notice that he bites more at night or in the morning, then have scheduled play times during those times. And of course, don’t use your hands when playing with him.

Use a pole toy that has a toy dangling on the end when playing with your kitten. The best technique to use is one that imitates the hunt. Pretend that the toy on the end of the pole is a little animal; make it scurry into bags, on top of sofas and beds and other places. When you are ready to stop playing, don’t just end the game all of a sudden, instead gradually slow the play down. Make believe that the toy is a tired little animal, slowing down after a hard run from a predator. After a few minutes of gradually slowing the play down, finally let your youngster catch the toy one last time and then immediately give him something he loves to eat. It can be his regular meals or an especially delicious treat. He will eat, groom and then go to sleep. Make sure to play with him in this way multiple times during the day. Don’t leave the fishing pole toy out when you are not supervising him with it. He could wrap himself up in it and get hurt. This effective play/hunt technique was first brought to my attention by Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant.

With a little work and patience you will find your cat will gradually stop biting and can happily remain an indoor cat.



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Reader Comments

b.e.    fortaker, IN

3/31/2014 5:32:35 AM

It is a god article but so far it hasn't worked my case. I 've tried those things that you suggested . My cat is 7 months old for no reason jump on bed when i'm trying to sleep sometimes and bites me. Then sometimes he is good .I tried putting him the bathroom for few minutes away from me. that does work either.

Analisa    M, CA

7/27/2013 12:26:15 AM

I also do kitty time outs.when our kitty starts biting I put him in our spare bedroom ,close the door and leave him alone for a few minutes.after which he comes out and is much calmer and doesnt keep biting.he is biting less and less.just be patient and will pay off : )

KinKy    Lake City, FL

12/4/2009 12:01:04 AM

PLEASE don't get rid of your cat because of this issue, and Please don't put it outside either. The tips given will help resolve the issue, and as it's getting older, it won't take long for your cat to get the message and understand how to act right! PurrZ!

Peggy    Palm Harbor, FL

12/3/2009 9:34:24 PM

I was relieved to know that I was doing the right thing with giving my kitty time outs during her play biting phases. Mikayla Moonlight was an abandoned 5 week old baby my husband found and she has become our 4th 4-legged child. At 7 weeks she has put on weight and an attitude. Although her bites don't break the skin, some of them smart pretty well. When she ignores her feathered toys and insists on chewing on me, I put her in our guest bath, which is totally bare of anything interesting and close the door. It only takes a couple of minutes for her to settle down and be ready for her toys again. Thank you for this article. I was worried that I might be giving her more abandonment issues.

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