Q: I’ve always admired cats from afar, but have never had one. I adopted an adorable 4-month-old kitten named Andi and have had her for one month. She loves to play all of the time. When I first got her, she would grab and kick me with her back legs. Recently, this kitten started chomping down hard on me when we play. She also bites my arms and hands when I’m sitting on the sofa, trying to get me to play with her. I love playing with her, but don’t like the biting. What should I do?
A: Stop your kitten’s biting or play aggression by changing how you play with her. In your kitten’s world, biting is acceptable because you reinforce her aggression by using your hands when playing. Your kitten does not understand why she is allowed to bite sometimes and not at other times.
Instead of playing with Andi with your hands, use toys. Most kittens love pole-type toys. Please note: only give these types of toys to cats and kittens when someone can supervise the play. Other good toy choices include cat-safe balls, little stuffed animals and dental health chew toys. Avoid laser pointers with cats. They leave cats feeling frustrated because they can never catch the elusive dot.
Through play, kittens learn valuable lessons about hunting. Play with your kitten in a way that imitates the hunt, using the toys as prey. Certified Animal Behavior Consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett has developed a very effective method of playing with cats. Pretend the toy at the end of the pole is prey — pulling it away from Andi, mimicking the unpredictable movements of prey. Let Andi catch the toy periodically during the session. The game always ends with one last successful hunt. Immediately following Andi’s last catch, give her a satisfying meal to eat. She will eat, groom and go to sleep.
In addition to modifying how you play with Andi, use behavior modification to teach her that biting and roughhousing are not OK. Start by being observant and not over-stimulating her during play. When she becomes over-excited, decrease the intensity of the play. Give your kitten a brief time out when she bites or looks like she’s about to attack you. Time outs are easy. Do not touch her or talk to her. Turn around, leave the room and close the door, temporarily ceasing all interaction with her. She will quickly learn that when she bites or becomes aggressive, her favorite person abandons her. Time outs for play aggression are short — usually 30 seconds is all you need.