Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My 4-month-old kitten, Marcel, has been a real problem boy: biting, scratching, attacking, etc. I know this is kitten play, and they are trainable, but I’ve tried out all the advice I’ve read about and nothing is working.
He doesn’t mind the spray bottle. Hissing at him sometimes works but sometimes gets him more excited and agitated, making for crazier attacks. I try to stay calm and tell him “no” but it’s hard when he’s just inflicted a wound. I never play with him with my fingers, and I’ve provided many toys. Marcel was found at only a couple of weeks old, without a mother. He’s adorable, but a such a brat! Will he just grow out of it? Will neutering help? I’m tired of mopping up my own blood.
Siouxsie: Well, Belle, it sounds like there are a couple of issues here: First, Marcel is of an age where this kind of play is normal, but he’s carrying it out a way that hurts you. Second, as an orphaned and bottle-raised kitten he never had a chance to learn “cat manners.” But we think we can help you.
Thomas: First of all, we recommend that you abandon the spray bottle. It’s really not a good discipline tool, especially now that Marcel has gotten used to it. Once a cat no longer sees water spray as a deterrent, it just becomes part of the game.
Dahlia: Hissing can also be counterproductive, as you’ve found. Especially with a kitten who’s never learned “cat manners,” he probably doesn’t understand hissing as a symbol of “STOP THAT!”
Siouxsie: Instead, we recommend that when he behaves in a way that hurts you, you use the “No, And Down” technique. If he’s in your lap and he bites or scratches you, say “No” in a firm but calm voice and put him down on the floor. Then, don’t pay any attention to him for a few minutes.
Thomas: If you do this consistently, Marcel will begin to realize that he’s not going to get the attention he wants when he bites or scratches. This technique takes patience, and you have to do it every single time he does the undesirable behavior.
Dahlia: Belle, you’ve mentioned that you have lots of toys for Marcel. Do you have any interactive toys such as a fishing pole or thing-on-a-string toy? If you do, you need to play with him every day so he learns to use his hunting instincts on the toy rather than on you.
Siouxsie: The thing-on-a-string toy is also helpful for distraction. When you see Marcel starting to look like he’s ready to attack — hunkered down, maybe with his back legs stomping a little bit, tail tip twitching, and staring at the object of his fascination — pull out the string toy and take his attention away from your ankles or your feet.
Thomas: Don’t start the play after he’s attacked, though. That will actually reinforce the behavior because a positive result will come from clawing or biting you.
Dahlia: Finally, do you know how to play with Marcel in a way that gets his hunting instincts going?
Siouxsie: If you’re using a bird-like toy, make sure to incorporate frequent “landings” into the game. Birds don’t fly all the time, after all.
Thomas: “Freeze” the toy frequently. When the “prey” stays absolutely still, as if terrified, this can be very exciting. It’ll also allow Marcel a chance to think and plan his next move.
Dahlia: Vary the speed of your movements. Everything shouldn’t be fast. Incorporate creeping and crawling, and even just a slight quivering.
Siouxsie: Whenever Marcel gets the toy in his mouth, let him savor the victory.
Thomas: Yeah! I love it when I catch the toy and I get to chew on it for a few seconds while Mama tells me what a brave and puissant hunter I am!
Dahlia: And reward Marcel with a treat (or feed him dinner) after the game. After all, he caught the prey!
Siouxsie: We cats are designed to be sprinters, not marathon runners, so you may find that Marcel gets tired after 10 minutes or so. That’s normal. Several 5- to 10-minute play sessions a day will help him work some of that kitten energy out and he’ll be calmer with you.
Thomas: If he becomes aggressive while you’re petting him, watch his body language to see when he starts getting overstimulated. Usually the first sign will be that his tail will start twitching. When that happens, stop petting him and let him calm down. If you stop petting before he wigs out, it’ll make both of you happier.
Dahlia: We don’t often recommend this, Belle, but you might consider getting another cat so Marcel can have a friend to play with and a chance to learn proper cat manners. Kittens learn boundaries by playing with other cats. An orphaned kitten doesn’t have the opportunities for socialization that kittens born in a litter have. However, if you do bring another cat into your home, be sure to introduce the newcomer properly.
Siouxsie: Neutering may help curb some of the behavior issues, and as he gets to be a year or so old the “kitten crazies” will start to abate.
Thomas: But it’s really the retraining that will be most effective in the long run. The things Marcel learns as a kitten will carry through the rest of his life.
Dahlia: We hope this helps, Belle. Please let us know how things turn out!