When I got my kitten a couple of years ago, I firmly told my husband “make sure you don’t encourage her to play with your hands, or she’ll keep doing that once she’s grown up!” And of course, he replied with “oh, but it’s just so cute, and she’s so tiny.” All these years later, I get fantastic scratches on my arms, which my sympathetic friends believe I sustained at work with a very difficult patient. In fact, these scratches are from my own little monster at home when she feels it’s time to play.
Here are a few things regarding play biting and wrestling in kittens. Hopefully, these will be helpful for those of you bringing home your new, adorable, furry, indoor panther. It’s very normal for them to use their mouths to explore new objects and textures, and your moving hands will provide an attractive target! Over the first few months, they will be losing their baby teeth too, and their permanent teeth will start coming in. It can lead to sore gums and is another reason why they need lots of things to chew on.
When kittens play with each other, they nip, wrestle, and grab on to their littermates. If things get out of hand, they are quickly reprimanded, so they often learn from this early socialization period, how much biting will be tolerated. If your kitten was weaned early or hand raised, then he/she will have missed out on this important lesson so training them to play appropriately will be even harder. Your kitten will see your hands as something to play with and initially, small scratches and small teeth don’t feel too traumatic, but a full-grown cat actively hunting your limbs will not be nearly as cute. The idea is to consistently and persistently replace your hands with an appropriate toy so that your cat learns that he/she will still get to play with you, but that soft toys are appropriate and not hands. Wands with dangling toys are great as you can control the movement but keep your hands far away from the object of prey. Soft toys that you can launch across the room are great too to encourage natural hunting behaviour. These can also help to replace the “wrestling” matches they used to have with their littermates and give them something to try and tear apart. Cats really do love laser beams, but since your poor cat never has the opportunity to catch the elusive beam of light, this can lead to a lot of frustration. Maybe reward your cat with another toy or a treat after playing with lasers to combat that feeling.
Play-Biting in Kittens
It will be hard not to yell or get frustrated when your kitten suddenly leaps out from behind the couch to latch onto your ankles. Teach your kitten that treating you as a toy results in a loss of play with you by placing him/her in time out when this happens for 5min. The length of time isn’t too important. It doesn’t have to be hours of time out. The important part is to do it consistently to reinforce the message. Then when they’ve had a chance to calm down a bit bring him/her back in for acceptable play with you and a fun toy! Ideally, they learn that playing with the toy means continued to play, whereas biting your legs means a loss of their source of fun. It will be tempting to suddenly pull your hands away, or yell out, or pull away from the leg they were chomping on, but try to do this slowly and then don’t go back to pat him/her on the head as they will likely see all this back and forth as expected prey behaviour. Just remember that mouthing is necessary for young kittens, and attacking your hands and feet are related to normal hunting behaviour and should be encouraged! The important point is to use appropriate toys and substitutes, and don’t get yourself into the same mess I did!
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Written by: Dr. Mica Das Gupta, DVM