How Do I Stop My Kitten From Playing So Rough?

Biting during play is no fun, so how do you let your kitten know this behavior is unacceptable?

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Never use your hands as playthings for your kitten; always use toys for play. Azaliya/iStock/Thinkstock
Rita Reimers

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, and often that involves putting things in their mouths or scratching.

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?

5 Reasons Why Kittens Bite

A client of mine recently contacted me to ask this 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:

1. 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.

2. Play Aggression

Kittens use play aggression with their littermates to sharpen their hunting instincts and to learn proper social etiquette. They learn good/bad play behaviors from one another, and you may even notice the bitten kitten scolding the one who bites too hard.

3. Pent-Up Energy

A kitten who 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 you to pay attention to him and play.

4. Overstimulation

When your kitten has had enough petting or playtime, he might bite or grab your hand to communicate that it is time to stop.

5. Taught To Do It

Above 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 roughly: 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 oooh and ahhh when we see those cute, whiskered faces, and 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 her mouth, how sweet.”
  • “Look at him going after my toes under the covers, how funny.”

Cute, sweet and funny as those actions may be when done by a tiny, 12-week-old kitten, they are most unpleasant when an older kitten (or adult cat) does them, and they can actually cause great pain and injury to you in the process. More than one cat has ended up in the shelter for excessive biting, merely because their owners did not know what to do about it.

Most of the people who call me about biting issues in their adult cats will begrudgingly admit that they did play that way with their cat when he was a kitten, never realizing the long-term behavioral consequences. This is especially common if their cat grew up as an only kitten, with no sibling around to learn appropriate play and biting behaviors with.

The Right Way To Play With Kittens

Teaching your kitten that rough play and biting of your hands and feet is wrong really isn’t that difficult, but it does need consistency if it is going to work. Just provide the correct play stimulation for your kitten, while discouraging those unwanted play behaviors.

Set your kitten up for success by:

  • Teaching your kitten that hands are for petting and love and toys are for playing. Never use your bare hands or feet to initiate playtime.
  • 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. These are great outlets for pent-up energy, and something your kitten can bite and scratch to his heart’s content.
  • Playing with your kitten every day, 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 you 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.Follow these five tips:

1. 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 will grab after it. Your fleshy hands feel like prey, and he would like nothing more than to catch this prey and sink his teeth into it.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Don’t spray your cat with water.

It has been suggested that using a squirt from a water bottle is a good deterrent to discourage 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.

5. No yelling at or hitting your kitten.

Of course it should go without saying, but do not hit or yell at 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, a couple, where the husband used fear and intimidation with his cat by screaming in his face, and it showed. The cat would cower whenever the husband entered the room, and it made me very angry once I found out why!

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 are “bad” will help them grow into being loving cat companions to you for many years to come.

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats

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