Don’t Let Your Kitten Train You

Gypsy is a cute, 4-month old kitten who is rambunctious and loves to play. She eats well and uses her litter problems. She is a normal kitten in almost every way, but she has a bad habit. She likes to bite. Her owners have been working with her, but she is a stubborn little girl.

Hunting and stalking are normal cat behaviors, and often kittens need to be trained to stop pouncing and biting hands and feet. Most cats respond to some basic techniques that redirect this natural urge to an appropriate object. Gypsy reflexively bites in a variety of situations, and I’m trying to help her owners change this unwanted response.

Kittens typically teethe and have more oral personalities when they are 4-6 months old, but an owner shouldn’t have to constantly be on guard, wondering whether her pet might bite.

Gypsy behaved for the beginning of her exam at my office, but when she wasn’t getting her way and didn’t want to be touched, she started to bite and kick. Physically being able to handle a biting, 4-pound kitten is relatively easy, but once she grows, she is going to be a bigger problem.

Training a kitten to stop biting requires everyone who comes in contact her to treat her consistently. She is not allowed to bite anyone’s hands or feet, and if she wants to play roughly, a soft, stuffed toy needs to be her “bite” object.

Soft Paws vinyl nail caps can be used with kittens who strike with their claws.

The idea is to take weapons away from the kitten so that she cannot have the upper hand in any situation. During training you have to be firm, but you don’t want to get hurt.

The biting behavior that Gypsy exhibits is more serious than the inappropriate play behavior cats exhibit when they bite moving feet under blankets or attack when you are casually walking around the house. These latter behaviors can be extinguished by redirecting to toys and engaging the kitten in at least 5 minutes of intense, interactive play twice daily for good stimulation.

When you know there are stimuli that trigger a behavior, such as fast-moving hands or feet, you can work to refocus the kitten on another object by throwing something that is OK for her to chase and bite.

Kittens should not bite because they are mad or to get attention. They are training you instead of you training them in these situations.

Punishment is not effective in stopping biting behavior and sometimes just upsets the kitten and worsens the situation.

Using a loud noise – clapping hands, shaking a can with coins, or using a small air horn – can startle a kitten, and it will stop biting. Kitty “timeouts” can be useful when a kitten gets wild and continues to bite. Two to five minutes in a quiet, dark bathroom will calm her down. Squirting with water can work, but having a bottle or squirt gun readily accessible when the cat bites often is hard.

Rewarding with treats and praise when the kitten is behaving well and not biting is important, too. You have to give the kitten a consistent message on what you will tolerate.

Herbal and nutritional calming supplements can help during training. Rescue Remedy and Composure treats are two such products.

Biting behavior is one situation in which adding another cat or dog to the home could have a positive effect. I rarely suggest getting another pet as a treatment, but some kittens need another animal to interact with and teach them some manners.

If a kitten’s biting is not responding to behavior modification techniques, you need to consult with your vet or a behaviorist, because things will likely get worse as the cat matures. The only time biting has a rational basis is if the animal feels scared or threatened and is trying to protect herself.

One other biting situation that bears mention here is “petting intolerance.” Some cats get overstimulated when they are stroked, then turn around and bite. This surprises some owners. We don’t know why some cats are like this, but the best way to deal with this behavior is to become aware of the subtle signs that the cat is becoming overstimulated.

The signs could be tail swishing or thumping, dilation of the pupils, ears turning back, and a tensing of the body. Once you become aware, you need to immediately stop touching the cat and let her calm. If you are not able to perceive what a cat’s petting limits are, it is best not to touch her even if she jumps in your lap. You can use treats when the cat allows short periods of stroking without biting to try to lengthen her tolerable times.

The Cornell Feline Health Center and the Dumb Friends League both have online information for dealing with biting and other behavior problems:

vet.cornell.edu (search for Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression)

› ddfl.org/pdf/behavior-handout

I hope that with consistent training, Gypsy will stop biting. It might also hep if her owners wear gloves or a sleeve covered with a bad-tasting spray. If she learns that biting tastes bad and doesn’t get her the attention or response she wants, she will be an easier pet to live with.

Copyright © 2014 The Cat Care Clinic

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About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA

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