Teach Your Kitten How to Play Nice
A kitten's life is all about play, and play is all about prey. Soon after they open their eyes and hoist themselves up on their teeny paws, kittens start to play. But if you look closely, you'll notice that you have an itty-bitty hunter in your house.
Every race down the hallway, every pounce from behind a door, every swat and nip is a display of a kitten's hunting skills, instincts that are just as strong in today’s housecat as they were in their ancestors thousands of years ago. To a kitten, everything, and we mean everything, in the house is potential prey, including you.
Learning to play nice
Kittens learn how to inhibit their bite from their mothers and littermates. A kitten who is separated from their family too early may not know when to stop. Unacceptable behavior can quickly escalate.
In addition, if people use their hands and feet instead of toys to play with a young kitten, the kitten may learn that rough play is okay. In most cases, it's not too difficult to teach your kitten or young adult cat that rough play isn't acceptable.
If playing with your kitten evolves from peek-a-boo to professional wrestling in a matter of seconds, follow these tips to keep playtime interesting and reduce the number of trips to the first-aid kit.
- Don't let your kitten play with your hands or feet (or any other body part). This sends the wrong message.
- Use a fishing pole-type toy or throw a toy for them to chase — this keeps them away from your hands and body.
- Give your kitten something to wrestle with. This is one of the ways kittens play with each other, and a way they try to play with human feet and hands, so it's important to provide this type of alternative.
- Encourage play with a "wrestling toy" by rubbing it against your kitten's belly when they want to play roughly—and be sure to get your hand out of the way as soon as they accept the toy.
- Don't hit or yell at your kitten when they nip or pounces. This will only make them fearful of you and they may start to avoid you. The idea is to train them, not punish them.
Discouraging "bad" behavior
Playing is not bad behavior, but you do have to set the rules for your kitten: no biting. Everyone in the household has to be on the same page, too; your kitten can't be expected to learn that it's okay to play rough with dad but not with the baby.
Equip yourself with the right training tools: toys, toys, toys, and a water pistol.
A gnawing problem
If you're petting your kitten and they start gnawing on you, immediately say "no" and carefully take your hands away. Give them a toy to play with instead, and don't try to pet them again until they're tuckered out.
You can also make your hands unattractive to your kitten by putting a bad-tasting, but harmless, substance on them, like Bitter Apple or Tabasco sauce. A kitten will catch on quickly.
Kittens always seem to want to play with whatever you’re using—knitting needles, pencil, telephone antenna. If yours starts "attacking" your utensils, sharply say "no" to disrupt their behavior. Then give them one of their own toys. Be sure they are not attacking when you give them a toy or she'll think they are being rewarded for biting.
On the hunt
Kittens also like to "hunt" you while you're walking around. They'll jump out from behind a door or under a chair and pounce on your ankles. If they don't pounce, praise them with "Good kitty," but reprimand them if they do.
Pay no attention
Withdraw attention when your kitten doesn't get the message. If the distraction and redirection techniques don't work, the most drastic thing you can do to discourage your cat from rough play is to withdraw all attention.
The best way to withdraw your attention is to walk to another room and close the door long enough for them to calm down. If you pick them up to put them in another room, then you're rewarding them by touching them, so you should always be the one to leave the room.
Remember, your kitten wants to play with you, not just toys, so be sure to set aside time for regular, serious, and safe play sessions.
Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.