Cats are predators. And that predatory instinct kicks in just weeks after they’re born when they start fine-tuning their hunting skills through play with toys, each other, and their human family. Sometimes that play gets too rough, especially as they get older, leading to scratching and biting. This is called play aggression. And we often unintentionally reinforce that aggressive play with how we engage with our kittens. It’s important to proactively manage rough play from your kitten before it becomes a painful, lifelong habit.
Play aggression isn’t meant to cause serious damage, even though sometimes it can. However, cats will get aggressive for other reasons as well. One of the most common is fear. If your kitten is biting and scratching along with fearful or stressed behavior like hiding, cowering when approached, hissing or growling, or looking like they’re not having fun but instead fighting to protect themselves, talk with your veterinarian or a feline behavior expert right away. You’re probably not dealing with play aggression but, instead, an instinctual aggressive reaction triggered by fear or pain. You'll want to help your kitten through this issue in a very different way than what is outlined below.
Even though our domestic housecats don’t necessarily have to hunt for food, and many aren’t in situations where they need to protect themselves from predators, they still have those instincts. And like any living creature, in order to get good at something, they need to practice. Kittens start practicing their hunting and self-defense skills at just a few weeks old. They’re learning how their bodies work, how high they can climb, where they can balance without falling off, how to use their claws and teeth, and, importantly for us humans, how much is too much when it comes to using those claws and teeth.
It's natural for kittens to get a little too aggressive with that play and learning. That’s where you want to step in to help. Their siblings and mama cat will also help if they’re around. Their reactions to a bite or scratch that’s too hard help them learn when to ease up. That’s why kittens who aren’t raised with their mother and/or other kittens in their first few months can often be a bit more play aggressive. They didn’t have the benefit of that teaching.
This playful biting and scratching behavior tends to peak around nine months of age and often continues until they’re about one and a half years old. Of course, all cats are individuals. Some kitties don’t have that interest in aggressive behavior, and others can play aggressively well into their older years. That’s why management is so vital.
Watch feline behavior expert, Marci Koski, explain why your cat may suddenly ambush you out of nowhere and what you can do.
How you react to your kitten’s biting and scratching will lay the foundation for the way they interact with you throughout their lives. You want to discourage the behavior. But punishment won’t work.
This is instinct, burned into a cat’s DNA. No amount of punishment is going to undo that. What it will do is damage your relationship over time. It’s more likely to make your cat aggressive in a defensive way, as they react to your punishment of their natural behavior.
You shouldn't expect your kitten not to need to scratch and bite. It’s a fundamental part of being a cat.
The trick is to give your kitten appropriate ways to meet that need for aggressive play, neutrally interrupt the behavior when they’re biting and scratching you, and redirect them to that appropriate outlet. As the saying goes in animal behavior work, “For every no, there should be an acceptable yes!”
Be careful with rough play in general. And never use your body parts for rough play, like using your hands or feet to play with or move your cat around. We all want to grab a squishy kitten belly and give it a shake. But that’s inviting your kitten to grab on and playfully defend themselves. If your kitten wants to beat up on something, and they will, it shouldn’t be you.
Instead, use stuffed kicker toys. They come in all shapes and sizes. And they’re the perfect alternative to your hands and feet when your kitten wants to practice pouncing, grabbing, and doing their kill bite or bunny kick. Have them around your home, so they always have an acceptable option nearby. And if you can’t resist doing some rough play, use the kicker toy. Since you’re holding it, you still get that interactive experience with your kitten. But they have something they are allowed to grab onto and sink those claws and teeth into.
Even the best prevention won’t necessarily stop your kitten from being a little play aggressive. Your response is key! Anytime (and every time) your kitten bites too hard or scratches:
If your kitten is regularly getting aggressive with you, that’s a good sign they’re not getting enough play and enrichment during the day. That peak play aggression window is also a peak energy level window. It takes a lot to manage kitten energy. Look for ways to engage both their body and mind. Training work, food puzzles, and other brain games are great ways to burn energy, in addition to wand toy play sessions where they can hunt. Learn more about different kinds of cat toys and how to use them.
And remember, consistency is essential. You can’t expect your kitten to understand that aggressive play is fine in some situations but not in others. You need to be consistent that any rough play gets the same response from you. And everyone who interacts with the kitten needs to follow the same procedure. Share your plan with family and friends so they can follow suit.
Marci Koski from Feline Behavior Solutions demonstrates some fun DIY cat puzzles to give your kitty some mental stimulation.
Aggressive, rough play from people and other pets can encourage your kitten to bite or scratch. Make sure every family member and guest who plays with your cat knows that rough play isn't acceptable unless it's playing with an appropriate toy.
If your cat isn't getting enough physical and mental enrichment, they can be more play aggressive. Play that allows them to “hunt” (stalk, chase, pounce, and kill their prey) is important. Learn more about how to mimic hunting when playing with your cat.
If your reaction to biting and scratching is to give your kitten attention, even negative attention, like a lecture about why they need to be gentle or punishing them, you could be unintentionally reinforcing the behavior you want to stop. That’s because biting and scratching can turn into attention-seeking behavior. Your cat is bored. You’re focused on something else. How do they get you to stop and focus on them, even in a negative way? By attacking your arm or leg! That’s why your reaction is so important.
Punishment will always make it worse, whether that play aggression turns into defensive aggression or makes your cat fearful of you.
Play aggression can range from very mild to extremely serious. If your kitten’s aggression is damaging your relationship with them or you’ve become fearful of being injured, talk with a certified feline training and behavior specialist or veterinary behaviorist right away.
If the techniques above aren’t helping with your kitten’s biting and scratching, regardless of how mild it is, a behavior expert can still help. There may be triggers causing the aggression that you’re not aware of. And there are many more tactics and training options to help manage this behavior. Even if your kitten has been biting and scratching for a while or they’re well past their kitten stage, there’s still much that can be done.
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