Dear Ms Kitty,
We got our new kitten Bella a few weeks ago and now all she wants to do is bite, scratch and play instead of cuddle. What happened to our sweet little bundle of fluff? How do we keep her from turning into a cat we don’t want to be around?
Scratched in Skyway
Warmer weather brings Kitten Season, when all the unfixed cats do what they are hardwired to do: make babies. Thank you for giving a loving home to one of the hundreds of thousands who will be born this year in Colorado alone.
There are many reasons a kitten can go from a purring little baby to a wild little monster. In nature, Bella would stay with her mom until the next litter arrives, playing with her siblings and learning how to be a cat.
In normal cat play, her sisters and brothers would teach bite and scratch inhibition, letting her know when her play gets too rough by biting or scratching back. If she got too rough with mom, she would be gently held down until she stopped, then released.
We humans aren’t the good teachers Bella’s cat family was. We can’t give her a little nip or scratch or hold her down to tell her to stop. A kitten who bites is usually being taught to, and it’s not her fault.
Watch those hands!
How many videos have you seen where a human is “tickling” or using their fingers or hands to play with a tiny kitten? It can be amusing to watch a fluffed-up little creature defending itself.
But every time you use your hands to play, you are actually training your baby to attack hands. Often that behavior generalizes into attacking feet or other uncovered parts of the body.
Playing with your hands can set up your kitten for a lifetime of conflict with humans. It won’t be cute when you have an adult cat who thinks you want to interact with biting or scratching. Biting is a common reason that cats are abandoned to shelters.
Kittens are not small dogs
Those of us who grew up roughhousing with dogs may tend to do that with kittens too. Most dogs chase and tackle and roll with the confidence that other dogs in their pack will recognize this as play and not take it as a threat.
While kittens play too, it’s more to learn how to hunt. They stalk and pounce and attack, just like they would if they were hungry.
As kittens get older, these skills are used to hunt by themselves, not in a pack. They trade in rowdy play for the ability to control to focus on finding food to stay alive as they become adults.
We humans are like Godzilla to a 5-pound kitten, 20-30 times bigger! If you or your child grabs Bella to play-fight, to wrestle or force her into situations where she’s scared and can’t get away, she may feel trapped into defending herself.
Roughhousing can also freeze her response to the person scaring her, only to have it emerge with another family member when you least expect it. This is known as redirected aggression and can be especially dangerous and confusing.
Play every day
Please don’t think this means you can’t play with your kitten! Just like dogs need to be walked, daily playtime with Bella will keep her healthy and playful her whole life.
Just make sure to do it by giving her the freedom to pounce, bite and wrestle with cat-appropriate toys…not your hands and feet.
If petting or playtime escalates, quickly but gently remove her or yourself from the situation. If you do this consistently—every single time—she will quickly learn that biting doesn’t get what she craves most: your attention.
Alternate the removal with regular appropriate playtime. Feed her a small protein snack after each play session to complete her hunting cycle. Then it will be time to settle in for grooming and sleeping. She will cuddle, purr and be the gentle little creature you also want her to be.
Consider a kitty friend
Cats in the wild grow up in family groups called colonies. While they tend to hunt by themselves, they do bond with family members. If Bella is by herself and you can afford another cat, please consider finding her another kitten friend. If you haven’t adopted your kitten yet, please consider adopting a pair of siblings.
She will still be more than willing to play and cuddle with you, but also have a friend to depend on when you’re not around. There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing your kitten and her best friend cuddled together, grooming and purring.
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven and Carole Galloway owns Colorado Cats Boarding. Ask Ms Kitty is a free helpline offered by Happy Cats Haven and Colorado Cats Boarding.