Play helps prepare kittens to become great hunters and develops their social skills with other cats. But this behavior is not fun when the pet treats people like big mice or when a playful pounce punctures skin. Although play bites are usually inhibited and swatting is often done with retracted claws, sharp teeth and nails can damage clothing or cause injury. The risk of injury increases when the behavior is directed toward the face, a person with fragile skin, or someone with an immune deficiency disorder.
Cat play is typically seen in young, active cats and involves elements of hunting, including stalking, chasing, attacking, and biting. The attacks escalate when people encourage the behavior because they think it’s cute. Most kittens play with other kittens in a rough-and-tumble way. When a feline playmate is not available, a family member may become the next best target. However, while you may be an appealing target for your cat’s play, you don’t have the fur, mobility, or defensive skills of a cat, which increases the likelihood of injuries.
Teasing a small kitten with your fingers and toes may seem like fun, but this can escalate to harder bites as your pet grows up. If you want to be more to your cat than a big toy, never encourage this behavior. While some of these little guys can seem quite bloodthirsty and relentless, their behavior can usually be controlled.
Since play is normal, you will first need to focus on engaging your cat in acceptable ways to play. Providing a feline playmate of the same age and temperament will usually draw the play attacks away from you and toward the new buddy. Consider this option only if you are prepared to care for two cats, however. Discuss with your veterinarian whether another cat seems right for your home and how to introduce the new cat. If adding a cat is out of the question, then you must take the responsibility for providing the proper type of ply and shaping your pet’s behavior.
Always maintain control at playtime. Play that is initiated by the cat should be ignored or interrupted. If you can use a few commands, such as “playtime,” before each play session and “come” and “sit” for food and treats, you may be able to interrupt the cat and change his focus with a command before play attacks begin.
Play interaction with the cat should involve tossing or dangling toys for him to chase and catch to direct the play away form you. The more vigorous the interaction with the toys, the better. Keep your kitten so busy and worn-out that he doesn’t even think about going after you. Stock up on all types of fun, tempting toys for your cat to chase, pounce upon, and even sink his teeth into. Use toys that are the size and texture that your cat would most want to hunt. A short wand or fishing rod can be used to dangle small plastic, leather, or feather toys in front of your cat. Coasting or even stuffing a toy with food or catnip can increase its appeal. Consider feeding multiple smaller meals. Placing your cat’s food inside toys that require manipulation such as batting, rolling, or chewing to dispense the food can provide a good alternative to hunting. Motion-activated toys can amuse your cat when you are not around. Or give your cat Ping-Pong balls or unshelled walnuts for swatting. Also provide objects for exploration (e.g., cardboard boxes, paper bags, kitty condos) and perching (e.g., on windowsills).
Avoid all physical punishment, such as swatting your pet or thumping him on the nose to stop rough play. It may cause your cat to fear you, become aggressive, or even play more roughly. A blast of air from a compressed air can (obtained from a photography store) and a squirt from a water gun are safe ways to discourage the behavior. This approach is likely to work only when you can anticipate an attack and are prepared to interrupt your kitten as he begins the assault. However, this is not always easy since attacks are most likely to occur when you are busy or unprepared. Vigilance is a necessary ingredient for being consistent in teaching your kitten not to attack, and a bell on the collar may help to keep track of his whereabouts. Do not use these techniques if they are not immediately effective or if they cause fear.
Nighttime attacks are more difficult to handle and, in most cases, the simple solution is to keep the cat out of the bedroom when you sleep. Often this behavior will decrease and finally stop as the pet grows older. If the kitten has the annoying habit of waking you up by sucking on earlobes or elbows, try applying a light coat of underarm deodorant to those areas to discourage him. Or keep a can of compressed air nearby to discourage those surprise attacks. Increasing daytime play should also help to decrease nighttime activity.
Problems with other cats in the home can occur when the play target is another cat that is weak, fearful, or old and cannot tolerate the young cat’s playful behavior. The pets should be kept separate unless supervised. Before play gets too rough, use a command to encourage the rambunctious cat to come and take a treat or play with his toys. You can also discourage the behavior with a water gun. Do not yell at the kitten during play attacks because this can make both cats more nervous. Sometimes the cat being attacked can become so stressed that veterinary counseling should be sought regarding the possible use of pheromones or medication.
Since young kittens tend to use their paws in play, it’s a good idea to keep those nails trimmed to prevent them from snagging sensitive skin. It’s easy to condition your cat to accept nail trimming, but you must have patience and pick the right time. The worst time to attempt nail trimming is when the pet is alert and active. All kittens occasionally nap, so take advantage of downtime to trim nails. Handle the paw very gently, use a sharp pair of trimmers, and quickly take off the tip of one nail. If the pet continues to snooze, take the tip off another nail or two. If your cat stirs, give him a small treat. Never force the pet to hold still for a nail trim, and always cease before he squirms and resists.
The Animal Medical Center of Southern California is devoted to providing the best medical, surgicalm and emergency critical care available in veterinary medicine. As important as our medical expertise is, we believe that excellent care combines state-of-the-art veterinary medicine and surgery with a focus on compassion and respect for your pet and for your family.
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