My kitten, Kirk, is now five months old and, for the most part, I’m enjoying his kittenhood.
Unfortunately, he’s hit the normal stage of development when his playtimes have become quite serious (for him) and the other pets in the household and I have become his target. His nails and teeth are sharp, and when he latches on, he can easily draw blood. So with the help of my dogs and adult cats, we’re all teaching him that rough, aggressive play is not acceptable.
Cats have two types of play. Solitary play is when the cat will play with a toy. The toy might be a cat toy, a bug he’s caught, a rolled up piece of paper, a cardboard box or a paper bag. The cat will amuse himself with the toy and have a great time. When playing by himself, he can be as rough as he wants. Social play, on the other hand, is with another cat, a dog, a person or another animal. Most cats learn to withhold bites and scratches so as not to hurt their playmates, but that knowledge isn’t inborn; kittens have to learn those lessons.
Aggression Ends the Game
My adult cats are helping teach Kirk, and I’ve been studying what they do. Spock, for example, is a big cat and when Kirk gets too rough, Spock will lie on top of Kirk, pinning him, until Kirk stops fighting. Spock then just gets up and walks away. The playtime is over. The dogs are not nearly as subtle. When Kirk attacks a dog from the rear, grabs a tail or bites a leg, the dog growls, shakes the kitten off, and walks away. In other words, the lesson is that aggression ends the game.
I put this to the test the other day. Kirk likes to retrieve toys, so I tossed the toy while he chased after it, attacked it and brought it back to me. One time when I picked up the toy to throw, Kirk wrapped himself around my hand (which was still holding the toy) and latched on with nails and teeth. With my other hand, I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, detached him from my hand and put him on the floor. Then, keeping his toy, I got up and walked away. No yelling, no rough stuff, no hitting, no pinning him to the ground. I simply stopped the game and walked away.
After a few minutes he followed me and asked for petting. I doubt that was an apology; instead, he was probably trying to figure out what happened, and with repetition, he will figure it out.
Don’t Play Rough
It’s important that you don’t teach your kitten to fight you. If you play rough with him, finger fight with him, pin him to the ground with your hand or otherwise use your size and strength against him, you’re teaching him to fight you. He may be tiny, especially as a kitten, and can’t do much damage now, but a full-grown cat who has been taught to fight people will eventually hurt someone.
Teach your kitten that your hands are always gentle and he needs to be gentle in response. Your hands should pet him, stroke him, scratch behind the ears and tickle his tummy. If you need to do something he may not like, such as give him medication, wrap him in a towel first (swaddle him) so that the towel restrains him. Then you can care for him without the cat thinking he needs to fight your hands.
Flirt Poles are Great
A flirt pole is like a small fishing rod with a cat toy on the end of the string. When you flit the toy back and forth, your kitten will chase the toy, leap and jump to catch it and, when he does catch it, he can’t run off with it because it’s attached. This way the game can continue.
Five minutes with the flirt pole several times a day is great. If your kitten shows signs that he’s had enough (panting, breathing hard, lying down) then stop the game.
The activity is wonderful for your kitten’s physical development and helps him use up some of his excess energy. In addition, it also satisfies his hunting instincts as he chases and catches the moving toy. Plus, when he’s tired, he’s not going to be stalking and hunting you, your family and your other pets.
Using Toys as Distractions
If your kitten is bound and determined to attack you, your feet, your shoes or shoelaces, use a cat toy as a distraction. For example, when putting on your shoes, have several cat toys at hand. When your kitten is eyeing your shoe laces, take one of the toys and toss it across the room. When your kitten is chasing that toy, he isn’t attacking your shoe laces.
This isn’t rewarding the kitten for attacking your shoelaces; instead, it’s distracting the kitten. Preventing bad or unwanted behavior from occurring is good training.
Make Solitary Play Fun
Although it might be fun to play with your kitten all day, few of us can do that. Therefore, in between your play sessions with your kitten, make his solitary play times more fun. A couple of cardboard boxes with some drycat treats inside, a couple of cat toys or some crumpled paper will all make his play time enjoyable. The cat tunnels available where cat toys are sold are fun, too, as is a 2-foot long, 8-inch wide piece of PVC pipe. Several pipe cleaners twisted around each other are good toys. Shredded newspaper or crumpled brown paper in a box are fun. Just make sure the toys are safe for a kitten.
Time-Outs Are Effective
Behaviorists often recommend time-outs to decrease feline aggression, and I saw how that could work as both Spock and my dogs walked away from Kirk when he got too rough. By walking away, they stopped the game and left Kirk alone so he could calm down and ponder what happened.
To make time-outs work, they have to be used each and every time the kitten gets too rough, so everyone in the family needs to utilize them the same way. When you end the game, there should be nothing said, no eye contact, no yelling or scolding, no physical corrections and no rough handling. The game simply stops, immediately and completely, and you walk away. If he follows you, trying to resume the game, then close a door so there is a door between you.
There is no set time for a time-out as every kitten is different but you can pet your kitten when he’s calm, quiet and gentle.
Be patient with these lessons. Play fighting is normal and instinctive to kittens, and he needs to learn to temper his play fighting with his furry playmates and you. Patience and consistency are the keys as well as energetic play sessions with you and by himself.
Written by: Liz Palika
Originally published on “The Honest Kitchen’s Blog”.