Every evening, our family spends time in front of the fireplace playing around with our beloved cat Sandy. The type of play is typical and probably familiar to all cat owners. It generally involves a joyful mixture of chasing, jumping and some light wrestling. For the most part, the event is harmless and enjoyable with both cat and human recognizing that this is play – not fight. Inevitably at some point though, kitty decides she’s going to turn the intensity up a notch and win this battle for good – with a quick snap of her mouth at my hand!
When I started training young Sandy how to play without biting, I was expecting a real challenge. I just figured the well documented stubbornness of these wonderful animals would result in a real struggle to change Sandy’s behaviour. As it turns out, teaching a cat how to play the right way is actually pretty straightforward. All that’s needed is a bit of insight into cat psychology and consistent implementation of some basic rules.
“Why are you biting me???”
Understanding why cats bite is imperative if we’re going to adjust the behaviour. One of the main reasons cats bite is because they’re annoyed. Using their mouths (and claws) is how they express annoyance. I’d like to think that if she could, Sandy would simply say to me, “Hey man, the way you keep pulling my tail isn’t cool. Cut it out.”
She can’t speak though (yet), so she bites.
Playing with a cat does involve walking a fine line. You have to be engaging and fun enough to keep her interested but you can’t cross that line into annoying behaviour. During play, keep a keen on your kitty. Cats will generally let you know they’re annoyed in subtle ways before resorting to the attack on your hand. A couple body parts on your kitty can tell you a lot about where how ticked off she is…
- The Tail: Quick, short little movements may mean your cat is getting fed up with whatever is going on at the moment. Give your cat a little space and watch her tail relax.
- The Ears: Ears back and folded = bad. Kitty’s getting ready to bite! Again, back off a bit until her ears return to a more natural position.
Most cat behaviour instructions include a section on the training of young kittens versus older cats. The obligatory “start young” advice is always included – kittens are easier to train than cats yada yada yada…
For the most part this advice is true but sometimes I think discussing it so often may do more harm than good. So many wonderful people seek out cats at local animal shelters and often select pets that aren’t kittens. I’d hate for these great pet owners to be discouraged into thinking their little friends are beyond repair. Our cat Sandy, for example, was almost five when we got her. We’ve worked with her and she’s changed!
Obviously, if you’re able to instill good habits at a young age, both your family and your cat will benefit down the road. Don’t refrain if your cat is a bit older though – you CAN teach an old cat new tricks.
Back to the task at hand – discouraging biting during play. Following the simple rules below have resulted in our Sandy being a respectful little playing partner.
Rule 1: Don’t use your bare hands to play with your cat.
You need to make it clear to your little buddy that humans are off limits when it comes to biting. Our cat’s favourite toy for example is a simple hair band. We flick it across the room and she chases it down before biting it. We throw it gently into the air and she leaps up and grabs it like a tiger attacking a bird.
Now, there was a time when I’d shake the hair band around in my hand, encouraging her to attack it. She’d usually attack the hair band as I wanted but occasionally she’d get my hand. Other times, I swear she’d just ignore the toy completely and attack my hand! After realizing that she was unable to distinguish between right and wrong here, I eliminated this exercise from our play routine. She’s been so much better since. I’ve drawn a clear line in the sand: Attack the toy; not my hand.
It really did amaze me how quickly Sandy’s behaviour changed when we implemented this first rule.
Rule 2: Stop the playing session if your cat bites you.
Following the rule above should squash the biting habit if practised consistently. It won’t happen overnight though and chances are if your cat currently associates hand biting with play time, she’ll likely slip up once or twice. You can help her understand that this type of play is no longer appropriate by calling it quits when she bites you.
The moment she bites, calmly stand up and put the toys back in the closet. Go sit down somewhere away from your cat and read the newspaper or watch TV. Completely ignore her. If your kitty is anything like Sandy, she’ll probably appear a tad perplexed by this development. Sandy would just sit there, turning her head to the side occasionally as if to say, “What’d I do?!”
Wait an appropriate amount of time – likely an hour or so – before engaging in another play session. This trick truly helps your cat understand what unacceptable behaviour is.
Rule 3: Establish a playtime routine.
Cats are comfortable doing the same things at the same times everyday in the same places. They thrive on routine. We play with our cat every night after dinner in the living room. This routine is so engrained in Sandy now that she sits and looks at her toy box as soon as she’s finished eating! This is perfect. She knows it’s playtime. And thanks to the first two rules, she knows that play doesn’t involve biting hands.
Following these three simple guidelines has resulted in a marked behavioural change. Sandy doesn’t bite anymore!
Feel free to share your own advice in the comments below. Thanks!