You are a loving cat parent and you love playing with your cat but sometimes your cat bites and scratches you out of nowhere. Today I want to share with you how to prevent play aggression and if it’s already happening, how to stop it.
My first interactions with cats were not ideal. I got swatted at and bitten for no reason at all (that's what I thought). When I got my bengal cat, Mia, I knew I wanted her to be social and to understand that biting and scratching were not tolerated. This is what I learned:
Cats bite and scratch for several reasons and it's never "out of nowhere". Cats are programmed to defend their space, protect themselves or get another cat's attention. You need to understand why your cat is scratching and biting you to stop it. The main triggers are Boredom, Fear, or discomfort. Only when you know what's the trigger you can work to stop the behavior.
Why do cats scratch and bite?
Aggression can be a dangerous behavior problem. It is complex to diagnose and can be tricky to treat. Even highly experienced professionals get bitten from time to time, so living with and treating an aggressive cat is inherently risky.
Cats always tell the truth. If your cat is biting you, something is triggering it. A good way to understand why your cat is aggressive is to think about the function or purpose of the aggression.
There are at least 10 identified types of cat aggressionPredatory, Territorial, Fearful, Redirected, Petting Induced, Pain Induced, Maternal, Play, and Idiopathic (where the cause of the aggression is hard to determine through behavior history or a medical exam)
Today I want to focus on Play Aggression.
What is Play Aggression in Cats
Why do you want to tackle play aggression, Albert? Because play aggression is the most common type of aggressive behavior that cats directly toward their owners. Also, it comes with warnings that might be difficult to identify at first but once we do, the behavior becomes easy to fix.
The other types of aggression are also worth talking about but that’s a topic for another day.
3 main reasons can trigger Play Aggression and turn your hands and ankles into a target. All of them have to do with your cat being under some sort of discomfort:
- Poor Socialization
- Over Stimulation
Let’s talk about poor socialization first because still today too many people overlook this one. The degree to which individual cats learn to inhibit their rough play varies but is mostly learned through trial and error. Kittens learn to control how hard they bite their mothers and littermates. A kitten who is separated from its family before two or three months of age may not have learned appropriate play, leading to unwanted nipping and to temper their play behavior.
The best way to prevent play aggression is to never adopt a kitten that’s younger than 12 weeks. The second best way, when the cats are already showing the behavior because they were removed from their families at a very young age is to let the cat know that it’s not fun for us.
How do Cats Learn New Behaviors?
Imagine a box with an electrified floor that also can deliver rewards. That box has a prisoner, a rat. Depending on the levers rats would pull, the box would deliver a punishment or a reward. This box is called the Skinner box and was invented at the beginning of the 19hundreds by D.F Skinner to study animal behavior.
Luckily we don’t need this box to train our cats but the learnings from Skinner allowed him to create the framework upon which Operant conditioning is built.
There are 2 different types of Operant Conditioning:
At a high level, “reinforcement” is a process by which you encourage a particular behavior so that it happens more frequently in the future.
- Positive reinforcement consists in offering an appetitive stimulus after a behavior we want to see more often.
- Negative reinforcement is removing noxious stimuli after that behavior that we want to see more often.
On the other hand, “punishment” is a process by which you discourage a particular behavior so that it happens less in the future.
- Positive punishment is the addition of noxious stimuli following a bad behavior that we want to stop.
- Negative punishment involves taking something good or desirable away to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior.
How do You Discipline a Cat for Biting?
You’ve probably heard that cats in general don’t do well with punishment and it can affect your bond with them and that is only partially true. Positive punishment consists in adding noxious stimuli, for example spraying our cats with water can destroy the bond with your cat and even create fear, but negative punishment consists of removing something that your cat wants, for example playing with you can go a long way.
When your kitten bites or scratches during playtime, we want to use negative punishment. Mark the moment with a complaint about the pain. I found it useful to complain *more like a high pitch aww rather than a scream* and then remove yourself from the play area and ignore them for 2 to 5 minutes. After that time, grab a toy and show them the “right” way to play.
Kittens also learn acceptable play from humans.
If you allow your cat to play with your hands and feet instead of toys, the kitten may learn that hands and feet are play objects, which is cute when they’re kittens, but painful when they’re adults. Consistency is key. Everyone in the household must be on the same page: your kitten can't be expected to learn that it's okay to play rough with certain people but not with others.
If you or a family member is playing with your hands and feet with your cat, the best solution is to kick that person out off the household. A less radical option is to ensure that the person stops doing it and remove yourself from the play area when it happens unintentionally.
Particularly younger cats and very active breeds have high levels of energy. Keeping them amused and engaged can be a challenge. Cats that spend long hours alone without opportunities to play will try to seek interaction using play aggression, to trigger us as they would trigger a fellow feline.
Play With Your Cat to Stop them from Biting!
Play with your kitten at least two to three times a day using interactive toys. These are toys that have a feather or a worm in one end and yourself in the other.
If your cat doesn’t want to play with you, you are probably doing something wrong. Toss your phone on the bed, or the floor if you are a bad tosser, and pay attention to your cat. Remember that playtime is not only great to keep your cat healthy and behaving, it’s also an amazing way to increase the bond with them.
Check out this video to learn more about the best ways to play with your cat:
Keep in mind that when cats are playing they think they are hunting, so move the toy as if it is prey, moving it away from the kitten or across their field of vision. Sometimes the most interesting part of the play for the kitten is when the toy is not moving and they get to stalk and then pounce.
These are some of Mia's favorite toys!
While stationary toys are not a substitute for interactive play, it’s important that your kitten has appropriate objects they can play with when not playing with you. Offering your cat an outlet to release all the accumulated energy after a day of sleeping around the house waiting for you to come back is the best way to prevent this type of aggression.
Cat Aggression by Overstimulation
Over stimulation happens when a cat has been excited to a point where the raw feline inside them takes over. When this happens, the type of aggression is more like redirected aggression rather than play aggression. They have the energy and you become the outlet for that energy. The best way to finish a play session is to follow their natural behavior. Stalk, Pounce, Kill, Feast and Sleep.
Establishing a routine of feeding after the play session will help the kitten to relax post-meal and get them out of play mode.
If your cat has other behaviors you would like to stop, take a look at this playlist I put together which is all about stopping cats from doing less of what in human terms, is unacceptable behavior.
As always, keep your kittens wild and safe! See you in the next video!
Albert & Mia