When my former pet, Leroy, was a kitten, he loved to pounce on anything that moved — including hands, feet and the legs of people (or animals) passing by where he crouched. In fact, he liked biting our hands as much as he liked biting his toys. What seemed cute when Leroy was tiny soon became painful as he became more agile and a little bigger. What was the fascination with biting us? He loved being around us and enjoyed our company — so why bite the people you love? Why do kittens bite and how do you stop kitten biting appropriately and effectively before the cute kitten biting becomes serious cat biting?
It turns out that kitten biting is part of the play behavior kittens learn when they are with their littermates. “This is the time when each kitten learns how to use an inhibited bite so as not to cause injury,” explains Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified cat behaviorist and owner of Cat Behavior Associates. “A kitten who bites too hard is either reprimanded by the queen or gets a very negative reaction from a littermate. This social play is important, and each kitten soon learns the rules.”
Laughing and smiling at Leroy’s kitten biting behavior when he was little encouraged him to continue it. We soon learned to give Leroy appropriate toys and to stop playing with him immediately if he bit us during playtime — but as we later learned, we should have employed these training methods from the very beginning.
“The first and foremost rule when training a kitten to play gently is to not use your fingers as toys,” Johnson-Bennett says. “No matter how young your kitten is and whether it hurts when she bites or not, this isn’t the message you want to send to her. Biting flesh is never to be allowed.”
A variety of toys are available to help correct bad kitten biting behaviors. “From the very beginning, have appropriate toys for your kitten to bite during play,” Johnson-Bennett says. “For interactive playtime, use toys based on a fishing pole design. That will put a safe distance between your hands and your kitten’s teeth.”
Dangling smaller toys from your fingers could entice your kitten to bite your fingers. “When using smaller toys, such as fuzzy mice, be sure you toss them for the kitten to chase,” Johnson-Bennett says. “During playtime you never want to send a mixed message.”
And that may have been where we initially took some missteps with Leroy. Sometimes he seemed to get so caught up in the act of playing that he forgot where his toys ended and our hands began. When we tried to grab our hands away, we inadvertently encouraged him to keep after his “prey.”
“If your kitten accidentally bites you during playtime, immediately stop all action and stay still,” Johnson-Bennett says. “If she’s biting your ankles, stop moving. She wants movement, so if you stay still, she won’t be getting her desired result.”
Johnson-Bennett further recommends that you gently push your kitten away from your hand if the bite is causing pain, instead of grabbing your hand away. “This will confuse her, and she’ll loosen her grip,” she explains.
An accidental bite from your playful kitten doesn’t mean playtime has to come to an immediate end. “When your kitten bites, it’s important to stop all movement and ignore her. You can restart play when your kitten goes back to being relaxed and calm,” Johnson-Bennett explains. “This will send the message that biting skin will mean an end to the game.” But be consistent so your kitten receives the same message about kitten biting each time.
Negative reactions to kitten biting can have long-term negative effects on your relationship with her.
“If your kitten bites, don’t hit her, roughly push her away, squirt her with water or yell at her,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Although these actions may momentarily cause her to release her grip … your kitten may soon learn to become afraid of you.” Johnson-Bennett cautions that a physical response to biting may also cause your kitten to bite harder in a future incident or become more aggressive.
Though we made a few mistakes early on when dealing with Leroy’s kitten biting behavior, we made some adjustments that led to less biting — and more fun playing. It wasn’t always easy to ignore our cute kitten when he just wanted to play, but he soon learned that biting wasn’t acceptable and found appropriate outlets for his natural play biting activities.
Tell us: Does your kitten bite? How did you curb kitten biting?
Thumbnail: Photography ©BubblegirlPhoto | Getty Images.
This piece was originally published in 2018.
A lifelong cat owner, Stacy N. Hackett writes frequently about cats, cat breeds and a range of pet-related topics. The inspiration for her writing comes from her cats, Jack and Katie, and her Cocker Spaniel/Labrador Retriever mix, Maggie.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Catster magazine delivered straight to you!