Many years ago, I answered an ad for a free orange-and-white kitten. He was, the woman told me, deaf, and she didn’t feel up to dealing with a hearing-impaired feline.
Well, as it turned out, Dervish wasn’t deaf at all. He was, however, a first-class biter, and that had been why his person had been so anxious to dump him.
My husband, Tim, began working with the kitten, blowing in his face whenever he started acting particularly vampirish.
Dervish eventually outgrew his biting habit and became one of the mellowest, best-natured cats imaginable. Everybody loved him…and everybody grieved when he died at nearly 20 years old.
It’s All in the Game
Kittens, like puppies, love rough-housing and tussle with their litter mates constantly. Sometimes the mother cats will get in on the action, too.
“A young kitten will pounce, chase, stalk, wrestle, bite and scratch its siblings and mother,” observes Cats of Australia. “This is generally regarded as ‘mock’ aggression. The kitten is not intending to hurt anyone; it is just intent on having a good time. This is all normal behavior for a kitten.”
We’re apt to think of cats as lone agents, as not really being in tune with the rest of their kind. They don’t have a group mentality like dogs, we say.
Some cats do get that way. Unless they’ve been separated from their birth families early, however, most kittens clearly have a strong sense of being part of a social unit. They are dependent not just on their moms but also on each other. It’s a safety-in-numbers approach to living that probably served them well back in the pre-domestication days.
Somewhere in the recesses of their little kitten brains, they remember this. “Kittens become [socialized] within their litter and learn to inhibit over-aggressive behavior,” adds the Cats of Australia writer.
Litter mates will growl, hit back or stop playing altogether if another kitten gets too rough. And Mom-cat will quite literally knock some sense into him/her. “All the offender wants to do is play, so he learns that being over-aggressive may stop play.”
The Human Factor
Generally, when a kitten becomes a biter and/or scratcher, there’s a human to blame. Sad but true…and more often than not, it happens unintentionally. Kittens are irresistible, and play-wrestling with them just feels like the most natural thing in the world.
It’s easy to overstimulate them, however. We did this with Jason and didn’t realize the damage we’d done until after he’d left his kittenhood behind. He remained a biter for the rest of his life.
Play-wrestling also encourages your kitten to attack your hand. Try substituting a nice soft toy. Your hand will thank you.
There are also dangers from infection. This video shows how a seemingly harmless bite can turn serious, even requiring a hospital stay and surgery:
Breaking the Habit
Blowing in the kitten’s face, as Tim did with Dervish, used to be considered pretty effective. So did using a squirt bottle.
In her book More Cats in the Belfry (1995), Doreen Tovey tells how a vet she knew — “an expert in cat behavior” — used the latter “to cure one of his own kittens, who’d had a habit of biting…. It would dissuade the offender, who would associate it with what he was doing when it was pointed at him and would [realize] it was better not to do it.” It was, he said, a harmless way of modifying behavior.
The spray-bottle/squirt-gun method has fallen out of favor since then. A lot of qualified people worry that it will make your cat fearful of you.
Petfinder has still another take on the subject: “The water bottle or blowing only tells him to stop but doesn’t give him enough information about the things you want him to engage in instead.”
The Best Bet
Remember that over-aggressive kitten earlier in the article? His litter mates stopped playing with him when he got too rowdy. Once he modified his behavior, he got to join in all their kitten games again.
Do the same thing with your furry little renegade. Let him know that biters don’t get played with. Contrariwise, fuss over him when he plays nice. He’ll make the connection.
By the way, I don’t keep a squirt bottle anymore. One morning, I found the squirt bottle shattered on the floor. Magwitch, my Snowshoe Siamese-cross, looked unusually smug.