How can I teach my aggressive kitten the proper way to play?

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, describes how to establish appropriate rules for play engagement.

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Q: I recently acquired an 8-week-old kitten. He was found when he was about 10 days old, and his eyes were still closed. He was taken in by a friend who spent a lot of time with him, including bottle feeding him. I took him to the vet to get his first round of shots, and he seems very healthy. He eats well, uses his litterbox and is generally very smart.

He does, however, have some behavioral issues. He bites my hand and latches onto my arm and wrestles it at times. His behavior becomes almost manic. I have never used my fingers or hands to play with him. I do scold him, and I squirt him with a water bottle when he gets like this. I do not want him to get bigger and continue this behavior. I have tried to remove him when he is biting my hands and arm by grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, but that has not stopped him. Is this because he didn’t have a mother cat to train him properly? He has a stuffed bear that is about his size that he has had since he was found, which he loves to bite and wrestle. Should I remove the bear so that he isn’t encouraged to bite me in the same manner?

A: Your little kitten never had the opportunity to learn the rules of proper play engagement, since he was removed from his mom and siblings at such a young age. It is recommended that kittens stay with their mothers until they are about 12 weeks old, so that they can learn boundaries and cat-socialization skills.

It is now up to you to teach him the skills he never learned. You are correct not to use your bare hands to play with him. Instead of using a squirt bottle or scruffing or scolding him when he bites, walk away and give him a time out. Don’t interact with him for about five minutes. As soon as he bites, let out a high–pitched, “Owwwww!” This will simulate the cry a kitten makes when his wrestling partner has gone too far. Also, when he clamps on, don’t pull away. It takes a lot of discipline to not immediately pull your hand or arm away. His natural instinct is to grab on stronger and bite deeper when you’re trying to pull away. Your little ball of fur is doing what comes naturally. Predators instinctively bite harder to ensure that dinner doesn’t escape. Instead of pulling away, gently press in toward his mouth. Don’t press hard — you don’t want to hurt him. He will let go.

Give him other things to play with. He can keep his stuffed bear. A fishing pole toy is a wonderful tool to engage him. Imitate the hunt — have the toy scurry into bags, under sofas, over chairs, etc. Instead of ending the game, slow the play down to give the kitten a cooling off period. Finally, let him catch the toy, and then immediately feed him. He will eat, groom and then go to sleep. Play with him multiple times during the day this way. Please 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. There are also fun, interactive puzzle box toys that will help dissipate his kitten energy. Treat balls are also helpful. These are hollow plastic balls that can be filled with dry food or treats. The kitten will have to work for his meal, batting it around the floor until the treats fall out.

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Reader Comments

Lydia    Tampa, FL

1/19/2010 11:32:27 AM

We had a male kitten who bit and scratched whenever we played with him.

When he would start being agressive (he didn't start out playing like that), we would stop the play, pick him up, speak softly to him and stroke him to sooth him. Once we got him used to settling down to that, we started laying 1 finger on the top of his head and gently telling him "no" to give him a chance to settle down before we stopped play.
He is now a year old and does not get agressive when we play with him. We've used the same technique to brake up agressive arguements between the cats in te house (we have 4) All hte cats are treated the same way. If they can't behave together, then we give them a "time out" for about 5 minutes. Their attention spans and retention aren't any longer than that, so more than 5 minutes is just being mean to them. We've stoped a LOT of the agressive behavior in the cats, toward humans AND toward each other in the house. A little love goes a long way with cats, children, people in general.

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