Kittens bite — it’s a natural practice. They explore their world by mouthing objects with (OUCH!) needle-sharp teeth. However, normal exploration and kitten games can turn into a cat biting problem.
When Seren-Kitty showed up at my house at 5 months old, she loved to leap up and bite my (ahem) nether regions as I walked away. How embarrassing and painful.
To stop such problems, you need to set limits and learn how to train your kitten not to bite.
Why Do Kittens Bite?
Kittens bite for many reasons. In addition to exploring their environment, kittens may bite if they are feeling bad from a health problem and your touch accidentally causes them pain. Kittens who are shy or fearful also can bite to make that scary thing — you — back off. My new boy, Karma-Kat, bit me when I offered him some soft food on the end of my finger. He chomped down instead of licking. And yes, I should have known better!
Kittens start play-biting at about 3 weeks of age, and social play reaches its peak between 9 weeks through week 16 and begins to fade thereafter. Momma cat and siblings teach kittens that bites hurt and to pull their punches.
By the age of 5 months, singleton kittens increase play aggression games and the biting can be explosive. These kittens have no other playmates, and so may go from sweet lap snuggles to biting in seconds. Adopting a pair of kittens allows them “legal” outlets to wear each other out, until they outgrow the behavior by about 9 to 12 months of age. I recommend when possible that you adopt a pair of kittens together, so they teach these lessons naturally. Otherwise, it’s up us humans to teach kittens to stop biting.
How to Train A Kitten Not to Bite
You won’t eliminate biting entirely, but you can offer better alternatives to nailing your tender toes, ankles or nose. Punishment that hurts or scares kittens can make biting worse by turning play-bites into defensive aggression. The key to bite training is four-prong:
- Interrupt the inappropriate bites
- Teach consequences
- Offer a better target
- Reward good behavior
Interruptions: Kittens have a very short attention span, so the interruption must happen right as she chomps your ankle, or nails your hand. A very effective way to interrupt a young kitten from biting is to make a percussive SSSST! hissing sound that imitates a Momcat. Since a feline hiss means, “Back off, I’m warning you!” this works especially well with young kittens under about 4 months of age.
The second effective bite interruption is a scream. This works well on older kittens up to 6 or 7 months of age. A drawn-out yell won’t work, but a short, sharp and very loud scream does. This stopped my 5-month-old Seren-Kitty’s leaping bite-and-grabs with only two repeats. Kittens are smart and learn cause and effect very quickly.
The short scream works because it explains that biting hurts you. Kittens who play don’t want to hurt you; they want the games to continue. The short “EEEK!” not only startles and interrupts the biting, it explains what you think of her out-of-control play behavior, too. (Just be sure to warn family members before you scream.)
Please reserve this scream tactic for play aggression in kittens 7 months or younger, though. A scream near a growling or hissing older cat could increase feline aggressive behavior or even prompt an attack.
Consequences: When consequences are pleasant, they increase the chance a behavior will be repeated. It’s cute to allow kittens to play with your fingers when they’re tiny, right? Then they get big and it’s not so cute anymore. Whoops! You’ve taught the kitten it’s fun to target your hands — a hard lesson to un-learn.
People often reward biting without realizing it. Jerking away your hands or dancing around to dodge kitten bites make hands and feet even more alluring, because cats are triggered by movement.
It’s hard to do, I know, but grit your teeth and hold still. If she’s latched on to your hand, instead of pulling away, push into her mouth. That will prompt her to open wide and release your hand. Do this at the same time as you hiss or scream.
Then stop the games and positive attention. The sequence should be: bite = no games. She’ll learn that any time she bites, the fun stops. The only way for playtime to continue is if she learns to inhibit her bite.
“No game/attention” may mean turning away from her, ignoring her or even a “time-out” in a room by herself for five minutes. The time-out must happen immediately so the kitten associates the bite with being alone in a room. After five minutes, let her out and try again — but put her back in the room immediately if she again nails you.
Better Targets And Rewards: Offer your kitten a legal bite object. Use a stuffed toy or a fishing-pole-style interactive game, and wear out all that energy. Encourage the kitten to bite and chase the toy (rather than your hands or ankles). Praise her for bunny-kicking the stuffing out of the toy! But if she nails you again, repeat the time-out.
During the crazy kitten times, carry a stuffed toy with you to offer as a positive interruption/distraction. When you see Junior Kitten revving up to zoom out and grab your ankle, offer a preemptive toss of the toy and redirect the attack. Place heavy towels in each room in your house to toss over a stealth-attack kitten, too. That interrupts the behavior and protects your skin.
Seren-Kitty arrived when she was about 5 months old, so the “hiss” didn’t work on her. The “scream” interruption was very effective, although at that age, Seren easily got wound up with play-aggression and sometimes forgot herself. The time-out cured her of all biting, because she wanted so badly to be with her people.
Seren-Kitty has now been with us for 18 years, and I still see that little mischief-maker within. May it also be so with your mayhem-maker!