Play Aggression in Cats: Biting the Hand that Teases

kitten-biting-hand

Guest post by Harry Shubin

Next to failure to use the litter box, the second most common reason cats are given up to shelters is aggression. Last week we talked about petting aggression, when a cat is so sensitive that our failure to read her request to “stop!” petting sends her into overload and she gives us an urgent message to stop in the form of a bite.

What is play aggression?

There’s another type of aggression that is all too common, and that’s play aggression. If a petting aggression bite is our fault for not understanding our cats’ language, play aggression is our fault for not understanding our cats’ brains.

I watched the tiger cubs at the zoo, and a little girl near me said “they’re so cute, like kittens! I bet the zoo people hold them on their laps and pet them!” Her father smiled and replied, “the problem with that is they grow up and how do you explain to a 500 pound cat he can’t sit on your lap?” Years later, I watched an adopter tangle with ferocious kittens, and as they hung onto his hands by their tiny claws and teeth, I remembered the tigers.

Hardwired to hunt

Cats are hardwired hunters, as anyone who has ever watched an indoor cat stalk a bug can attest. The prey game starts as soon as kittens’ eyes open and they can stand on their legs and pounce. That’s why it’s important that young kittens be adopted with similarly aged kitten. Not only does that provide a same-species comparable playmate, and an outlet other than you for the stalking, pouncing, biting and clawing, but the kittens will quickly realize that biting and clawing hurts, and they will moderate their aggression… unless we allow them to play with our hands.

Playing with our hands can teach the cat to be aggressive. The alternative to creating a cat that play bites, and may someday end up in a shelter, labeled as aggressive (and facing a bleak future), is really quite simple.

How to prevent and correct play aggression

Instead of playing with your cat with your hand, use fishing pole or wand toys. By playing with our cats with an appropriate wand, we satisfy the cat’s prey drive with an acceptable hand alternative, and our hand is removed from the “prey” at the end of the wand. We keep wands at all of our adoption centers, and it’s good practice to use one when an adopter is meeting a cat in the center. Not only does it show off the cat’s playful side, it also provides an opportunity to talk briefly about the importance of using toys, and not our hands, to play.

But, what to do when faced with a cat that does play bite? All is not lost. First, trim his claws. That won’t solve the problem, but until better habits are learned, will mitigate the damage, since most cats grab with their legs while play biting. Next, when the cat bites or grabs, say “ouch” firmly, but don’t yell. (Ok, you could just as well say “salami”, but use the same word consistently, and in a firm tone.), then disengage. This may require gently extracting your hand from the mouth or paws. Do it slowly, as moving quickly is just playing the cat’s game, and he will most likely keep after you.

Follow this with a time out: disengage, and ignore the cat momentarily. After a brief moment, offer an acceptable toy: the wand. Finally, if the behavior is really violent, and it’s not possible to gently disengage, you can act as a mother cat does, and GENTLY tap the cat’s nose, or scruff her and hold her down GENTLY, for just a second, without any yelling, just a firm “no”. Then offer the wand again.

Just as momcat, or kitten siblings would do, you can teach your cat to end the play biting, with patience and appropriate toys.

Harry Shubin is the newsletter editor for the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington. Harry’s entire family is involved in cat rescue: daughter Rachel writes the blog We Have a Situation, where she shares stories of her cat-related life.

Photo by Melissa Wiese, Flickr Creative Commons

64 Comments on Play Aggression in Cats: Biting the Hand that Teases

  1. Suzy
    March 1, 2018 at 7:20 pm (2 years ago)

    My 7 year old cat Sally sometimes tries to start this play aggression with me, but I always disengage with her if she does and have many toys to use that she likes better. I adopted her about 2 years ago, and she was a little bit more aggressive at the time, but has settled down a lot now. My question is about whether or not this play aggression would be dangerous to another cat. I have been planning for a while to bring a second cat into my home. Sally never hurts me, if she does bite it is always softly. That being said, I am a big strong human, could she be dangerous to another kitty?

    Reply
  2. Melissa
    September 5, 2017 at 1:51 pm (2 years ago)

    I have a question, I just got a female cat who is about 10 weeks old. And I also have a one-year-old son. Well the cat love to attack our feet, toys, climbed up on top of everything, and my son in the cat love to play around and I do have one of the stick things with the toys on it actually I have like three of them which my son and the cat play with a lot well I’m trying to show the cat affection and love but as soon as I try to show the cat affection the cat immediately just starts biting me, I even try to put my hand out like I’m showing her that I’m not going to hurt her or it’s not play time and it’s full-on just attack mode for her. And I buy her the best food I possibly can and after she’s done eating then she will come up in love on me for about 5 minutes and then she’s back to running around the house tearing whatever she can up. And I’m not sure if it’s because she has my son that she plays with the most and then she has me who’s trying to force her to be lovable. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 5, 2017 at 3:51 pm (2 years ago)

      Young kittens have a lot of energy, as you’re learning, and they need a way to burn off that energy every single day. What you’re seeing is play and petting aggression, and it’s most likely the result of your kitten not getting enough playtime. She’s awfully young to be without her litter mates, and you may want to consider adopting a second kitten so she has a playmate to help her burn off all that kitten energy. If you’re already doing all the things suggested in this article, you may want to refer to this article on petting aggression: http://consciouscat.net/2016/04/04/cope-correct-petting-aggression-cats/ for more help.

      Reply
  3. matthew
    August 19, 2017 at 9:07 am (2 years ago)

    my cat plays with me at night when I’m in bed and will usually when she’s playing bite my hand but not hard enough to leave a wound is that ok?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 19, 2017 at 9:09 am (2 years ago)

      I would discourage any kind of play aggression, even if she doesn’t draw blood.

      Reply
  4. Dani
    July 24, 2017 at 12:26 am (2 years ago)

    all cats I have ever had have always played with our hands and none of them have ever been violent. Not all cats who have played with hands are aggressive

    Reply
  5. Christina
    June 18, 2017 at 3:39 pm (2 years ago)

    my cat hides under the couch. when we sit he attacks our heels and if we try to pet him he scratches us. is he playing or attacking

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 19, 2017 at 4:57 am (2 years ago)

      Sounds like play to me, Christina. He’s stalking his prey 🙂

      Reply
      • John
        July 8, 2017 at 11:02 pm (2 years ago)

        Y do cats grab ur hand hand pull it to them but not bite like if u stop petting them

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          July 9, 2017 at 5:14 am (2 years ago)

          It can be a sign that they’re overstimulated, but they may also be considering your hand as a toy.

          Reply
          • Amanda
            July 11, 2017 at 10:05 am (2 years ago)

            I have a 3 month old male. He loves to snuggle but after reading this articles I’ve figured out why he’s been biting and scratching when being pet. I will try not petting him anymore to see if the biting and scratching stops. But my why will cats (I’ve had lots of others)while playing attack your hand but not your face. He will bite my hands but as soon as I pick him up and bring him to my eye level he will immediately go limp and stop. But as soon as I put him down and he sees my hand he’ll try to attack again. Then if I immediately pick him up and bring him to eye level he’ll go limp again.

          • Ingrid
            July 11, 2017 at 3:36 pm (2 years ago)

            Bringing him close to your face may be perceived as intimidation by him. Staring between cats is signal of aggression.

  6. Ryan
    May 18, 2017 at 12:06 pm (2 years ago)

    My cat is about 1 year old and I have always played with my hands. She loves to get on her back and fight with me. She seems to try not to put her claws out as she actually grabs my hand with both paws without claws out while she chews on me. Not hard. Now, course the claws do come out from time to time and get me. She seems to really enjoy it. I don’t see any aggression in her when we are not playing. No biting or wrapping up unless she wants to play. I have started letting her go outside and she runs up to me, lays at my feet and rolls over on her back. I can rub her belly when she does this and she does not attack or fight at all. Supper sweet cat , if there is such a thing. All cats are not the same so keep that in mind.

    Reply
  7. Frank
    March 23, 2017 at 4:28 pm (2 years ago)

    My cat does things a bit backward! She won’t bite me when I am petting her, she bites (gently) when I am NOT petting her. I guess it’s her way of saying, “Hey! Why isn’t that hand giving me attention?” When I start petting, she stops nipping, unless I quit too soon.

    Reply
  8. Naomi
    March 13, 2017 at 6:46 am (3 years ago)

    Hi, maybe someone can help me out. I´m not sure if what my cat is doing is play aggression or not.
    She´s about a year and a half, likes to play very affectionate. When I´m studying, she usually comes and lays down in my arms on my books.

    Recently she has changed, she comes over like she wants to snuggle but then puts her teeth on my arm or my shoulder. It´s very gentle but then she immediately repeats with something stronger and then something stronger. If I calmy back away she follows me with her mouth open clearly looking for a chance and goes for a full on bite. By this time her tail is normally flicking like she´s angry too. It´s the only time she shows any aggression. I´m not sure if I´m doing something to scare her or if she´s trying to initiate play or what!

    I´m confused! Any ideas as to what it might be?

    Reply
    • Jas
      March 15, 2017 at 2:07 am (3 years ago)

      I learned my lesson. Always adopt or bring home a pair of kittens. Must at least have two so they can play with each OTHER and learn from each other that biting/clawing will not be tolerated. They basically teach each other the limits. It’s very important especially if they are high energy. I use to work all day and come home to a very bored kitten who would just pounce on me, bite and scratch. She never learned until she moved in with 3 kids who had the same level of energy that she had. Then she mellowed out because they also had a puppy. Cats just need exercise & lots of free space to hunt & run & pounce with playmates. It’s natural. We just need to provide them that environment that they deserve. It’s tough at first but the love that they give is more than life itself. It helps if other family members help out in case you get overwhelmed. I myself will probably adopt an older cat because I don’t have much energy anymore. But I still would like to give my time & care to helping a cat/or dog if I can. Cat behaviorist would be helpful too.

      Reply
      • Jas
        June 22, 2017 at 2:44 am (2 years ago)

        I totally understand!! I’ve had 2 cats and 8 kittens. I wish I had a solid solution but honestly it takes so much patience because each cat is so different! My older mama kitty was a stray cat, then became an indoor/outdoor cat. I thought she WAS PSYCHO because out of nowhere she would attack me for no reason at all! I played with her to tire her out, gave her any fancy food that she liked, sat with her one day all day, gave her attention, treated her like the queen that she is, but she still would go crazy for no reason. We would leave her alone and not even talk to her, give her a calm peaceful environment and she’d still get violent with us. Even took her to vet (spayed) checked out, they said she’s normal. How does a Normal healthy cat decide to attack us and scratch us out of the blue?? I miss her but couldn’t bring her to our second home so we left her in the good loving care of our neighbors. I feel like I failed her…

        Reply
    • Di
      March 18, 2017 at 10:38 am (3 years ago)

      I have a nine year old cat that must have gotten dumped somewhere by some nitwit. We live on a corner and when she was a kitten she meows at our door till we finally adopted her. We had a dog at the time that she would walk with when we went for walks. It was a hoot that they got along so well. We invited her in and she was a comfort when our beloved dog died. She’s always had a nipping/scratching problem but it was so random and few and far between and so unexpected we were confused but it wasn’t that big of a deal.
      Now it’s happening more often even when no one is touching her or even moving. I disagree with the theory of not scolding when this happens. You can’t tell me that they aren’t smart enough to know I am mad at her for doing it. Instinct or not. She is very smart. I am not going to quietly clean my wounds. I scold her and tell her I’m upset. And WHY should I not? All articles say not to but no one explains why. You scold a dog to stop a bad behavior, there’s no way this smart cat dies not understand that what she did is wrong. And no she is not playing, her ears go back etc. I know this is written about in many articles. I wish one got close to actually getting remotely close to the reason and solution. I love animals but now that my animal loving granddaughter is in the picture I need to figure this out.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        March 18, 2017 at 5:07 pm (3 years ago)

        You may not agree that scolding doesn’t work, but cats are not small dogs. You need to be willing to understand how cats think. If anything, scolding is perceived as aggression by a cat, which makes the problem worse. What does work are the suggestions offered in this article. You’ve got to help your cat burn off energy by playing with her. Try structured play sessions, 10-15 minutes, two or three times a day. Really get her tired out.

        Reply
        • Diana
          March 20, 2017 at 11:35 am (2 years ago)

          Cats have a different social structure than dogs and humans. Dogs and humans are “pack” animals with a defined hierarchy and a desire to please the alpha and can be shamed when told they are misbehaving. Cats could scarcely care less. I fostered a long time and have taught a few cats not to bite using a mild aversion therapy. If they bite, I’ve tapped them lightly on the nose with one finger and firmly said no. It takes time and consistency. I had one foster that had a tremendous problem with biting; I even wrote to the forum here about it. I decided to keep her myself. She likes to grab my hand in her mouth. When she does, I tell her gentle and she dials it back now. If she is too rough, I tell her it hurts and then she has to get off the sofa. Usually she comes quietly back in a couple of minutes and is fine. I wish I could say I’ve never yelled at a cat or gotten mad . . . But in general, it’s not the most effective tactic. With
          cats, usually their first response is, what’s in it for me . . . If Roxy hurts me, she loses attention and lap time. When she comes back and is nice, she gets it back. It has to be a consistent message and should be delivered in a conversational tone of voice. Roxy hasn’t needed a nose tap in a long time and only occasionally is rough enough to be out off the sofa. It is not an instant fix, but works more often than not. Good luck.

          Reply
  9. Manuel
    December 11, 2016 at 12:55 pm (3 years ago)

    Hi! Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge!

    I have a young cat, about 15 months old, that is very nice, I dont think that he has ever shown any aggresive behaviour towards me or my couple. He’s not one of those cats that like to be handled a lot or touched at the belly but he really loves to be petted.

    He does show sometimes aggressive behaviour towards my other cat (15 months old as well). They love each other very much, sleep together, like to clean each other and play together. But sometimes he likes to bite my other cat at the back of the neck, very firmly, until my other cat sets himself free, or I intervene. However, a few seconds later he tries to do it again, and keeps on it until he gets distracted and starts doing something else.

    Another problem I have with him is that he likes to scratch my face (and only my face, no problem with my hands), playfully, straight ears, normal pupils, he does not seem to be trying to cause damage, but he does. Its like with other cats that like to pat you in the face without using their claws, only that my cats uses them. I don’t know how to stop this because he does not even realize that he’s doing something wrong because when I say “OUCH” or move away he does nothing, just keeps watching haha. Usually cats KNOW when they have gone too far and they show it after your complain or move away.

    I amnot sure how to educate my loved kitty.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 11, 2016 at 3:28 pm (3 years ago)

      The behavior toward your other cat sounds like dominance behavior.

      Can you see the signs just before he starts to scratch your face? I don’t think you’ll be able to teach him to just pat gently, but you CAN try to distract him with a toy before he actually touches your face. Toss it across the room, or use a wand toy to redirect his attention.

      Reply
  10. Anna
    November 16, 2016 at 7:17 am (3 years ago)

    Hi 🙂
    I recently adopted a kitten, he should now be around 3-4 months (we’re not sure because the man who gave it to us had another (dunno if it’s the right word). He was lovely at first, and maybe me and my boyfriend were a little silly to let him play with our hands a bit, but I haven’t had a cat in ages and I forgot what it was like.
    He was cute and it didn’t hurt. At first. Then he grow up a bit and started to really be annoying, sometimes out of the blue (he’s in another room, walking around, he arrives in the room where i’m staying at suddenly sees me and runs to me) he starts biting hands and face. That is becoming pretty scary since, hands ok, full of scratches but it’s one thing. Biting face and neck could be really dangerous and i really don’t know what to do.
    I don’t even know if it’s “play aggression” because we weren’t playing at all. It’s look like i’m his prey but I want him to stop feeling like that about me.
    I tried screaming NO. I tried pull away, both gently and fast. Staying still, put him in the bathroom, even wet him and pushing him away and arg it’s always the same.
    The only thing I can’t do it’s changing the room, because most of the time when he’s doing biting, i’m on my bed working, and if I had to leave every time this happen i wouldn’t be doing a single thing (like for exemple, why writing this I had to stop at least 4 times cause he was biting, walking on my laptop and then biting as soon as I was trying to pull him away).

    I don’t know what to do.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2016 at 11:31 am (3 years ago)

      It sounds like your kitten is bored and the only way he knows to get your attention and discharge all this excess energy is by biting. Try structured playtime with him, 10-15 minutes at least three or four times a day. Really get him tired out with each session. When he does try to get your attention by biting, distract him by tossing a toy, or by wiggling a wand toy. Redirect his behavior into play. Never punish him by yelling, or using a spray bottle on him. If you need additional help, you may want to consider working with a feline behaviorist.

      Reply
    • Diana
      November 16, 2016 at 11:43 am (3 years ago)

      If you can, consider getting another kitten. Your baby is bored and needs a buddy to play with him. No matter how much time you give him, a human can’t chase him up a cat tree or wrestle with him. I fostered for a long time and worked with a rescue where the policy was that kittens under the age of 10 months either had to go with another kitten or to a home with another cat of a suitable age to be a playmate. If he has another cat to play with, he will be less interested in biting you and more easily taught not to do it.

      Reply
    • Lori
      November 16, 2016 at 12:29 pm (3 years ago)

      I Agree with Ingrid. Playtime.
      Olus she gave me very good advise when i first took in a stray tortie.
      Mine play bites but their love bites . dont hurt. And ehen shes bored she mever shuts up so we got her lazee toys and the mat that has the mouse under it. Sje spent hrs tiring herself out not she just gives us literally the lazer when she wants to play. It tires her out and shes content. She also loves catnip which then we have to play lazer so sje really tired. It stops her from mluthing off wanting outside constantly and she just sleeps.
      Id try that. There are lazer tots that you just turn on let thrm run and you dont have to do anythung bjt watch or not.
      Id suggest toys and playtime.
      I also think if you teach them young they learn to bit to not hurt. Its also a sign if love from thrm but not when it hurts.
      Thats a problem.
      Good luck.

      Reply
  11. Trace
    September 19, 2016 at 7:36 pm (3 years ago)

    Hello Ingrid. Thank you for this article. I have read it entirely, as well as the dialogue of the commenters. I have a slightly different situation. My kitten is now about 11 weeks. She is very attached to me. She wants to be on my lap always. She bites as my hand moves away from her body. I’ll be petting her, then need to reply to my mate in chat. As my hand raises she uses both paws to grab it and bring it back to her. She looks up at me with sad eyes and has a barely audible whine/meow like she needs something badly. She does not like to allow me to sit doing anything without her being in my lap. She is also very skittish. Like, she darts away whenever I or anyone else moves. She takes a very long time to stop being skittish around ppl. I adopted her from humans society when she was about 8 weeks old. But these traits are just growing stronger as to the biting and grasping my hand if the hand is attempting to leave her grasp.

    Reply
    • Trace
      September 19, 2016 at 7:38 pm (3 years ago)

      She also gently bites me for the same reason. It alternates.

      Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 20, 2016 at 5:36 am (3 years ago)

      It sounds like your kitten is very insecure – possibly because she may have been separated from her mother or litter mates too soon. This article may help with building up her confidence: http://consciouscat.net/2016/01/13/help-shy-cat-become-confident/

      I would also use play to help her – try structured playtime, two or three times a day, and really get her tired out to help her burn off some energy. It may help her remain calmer in general.

      Reply
  12. Jasmine
    January 27, 2016 at 5:13 pm (4 years ago)

    We want to adopt a stray cat that we’ve been feeding for over a year. We got her fixed/spayed last month. She’s a beautiful cat and super friendly with us and with all of the neighbors as well. She even comes inside our home and stays inside, sleeps, eats, uses litter box, and watches TV. One problem, her weird aggression! Out of the blue, I will be just walking, getting ready for work, and nowhere near her, she will hiss and jump/scratch me. She’s done this over six times to me even before we got her spayed. After she got spayed she is still hissing/biting at me. I’ve used neosporin on my cuts because they bleed. She has sharp claws and I’m afraid of her, but I love her so much. My husband has experienced the same thing once with her. We want to adopt her but we just cannot trust her or figure out why she is acting aggressively at times, it doesn’t make sense. She has everything she needs in the home, she has access to go outside whenever she wants! She spends most of her time outdoors when we work long hours, then she waits for us at the door when we get home, then she wants to stay indoors at night and wants so much attention! Her attacks happen like this; I will be walking around the house, paying bills, making lunch/dinner, then she will run towards my legs, rub on my legs ankles in circles, then she will step on my feet (I feel her claws coming out), then she will prevent me from walking or moving, then all of a sudden she will leap on my legs/thighs and scratch/hiss/bite like a full on attack. I used all of the disciplinary methods that You mentioned, like saying NO, ignoring, clapping, but it hasn’t worked. I don’t know if she wants to control me, territorial about our home, psychological, or she wants me to stop what I am doing to give her 100% attention/petting/playtime? I don’t have the time to be at her command because I work so much, and I cannot deal with her attacks. I’ve even tried to calmly talk to the cat to figure out why she does this because after the attack, she becomes very sweet and affectionate, likes she’s sorry for what she’s done. Then she will sit with me with sorry eyes and head-butt me like an apology from her. I’ve listened to the cat whisperer ” Jackson galaxy” as well. This situation is strange, she is a spoiled cat, she gets all the food, water, luxury, outdoor/indoor life, her own bathroom, her own bedroom, couch, Tv. She’s good with guests. Even good with dogs. Right now she is outside our patio, staring at me to let her come inside. She even knows how to open doors (scary) and she can break a screen to come inside from the patio or window. I’m afraid to be left alone with her inside the house sometimes, so I’ll stay in my room with the door shut until my husband comes home from work. Please help, we do love her a lot! 1/27/16. Aloha from Hawaii.

    Reply
    • Jasmine
      January 27, 2016 at 5:18 pm (4 years ago)

      Sorry forgot to mention I have used lavender plug-ins from pet store made for cats to help calm them but it doesn’t work.

      Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 28, 2016 at 5:32 am (4 years ago)

      It sounds to me like she needs more playtime. This behavior is a sign of a cat who has excess energy and doesn’t know what to do with it, and the best way to help her discharge it is through play. Try structured playtime, two or three times a day, 10 to 15 minutes each. Really get her tired out each time. Also, be prepared for her “attacks” by carrying small toys in your pocket. When you see her approaching, toss a toy to distract her attention.

      Reply
  13. Sofia
    January 16, 2016 at 12:36 am (4 years ago)

    I tried to follow this advice to a T, but still not making any progress with my 4-year old female cat. She loves playing with the mouse wand, and I’ll play with her for a good 15-20 minutes every day, then I usually feed her or she’ll lay down to take a break. But, when she’s done with her break/dinner, her eyes become dilated and she starts to silently stalk me. I’ve firmly told her ‘no’ or ‘ouch,’ but that doesn’t work. On most occasions, I’ve been able to get to the next room and close the door to get away, or grab a squirt her with a spray bottle. But, a few times, she had me cornered and violently attacked me, leaving scratches and blood gushing. Earlier today, she attacked me despite being sprayed with the water bottle. There’s no way I can get close to her to scruff her or tap on her nose, as suggested above, when she’s in attack mode. How do I get her to stop?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 16, 2016 at 6:13 am (4 years ago)

      Stop using the spray bottle, Sofia. As you’re already seeing, they not only do not work, they negatively affect the bond between cat and human. This article explains in more detail: http://consciouscat.net/2012/03/29/squirt-bottles-punishment-and-cat-behavior/

      Has your cat been to the vet recently? If not, I would take her for a thorough check up to rule out any medical issues. I would also recommend working with a feline behaviorist. If you can’t find anyone local to you, I can recommend Marilyn Krieger http://thecatcoach.com/ and Pam Johnson-Bennett http://www.catbehaviorassociates.com/ Both offer remote consultations.

      Reply
    • Jasmine
      January 27, 2016 at 5:28 pm (4 years ago)

      I understand how you feel, I’ve never used water bottle on our stray cat (even though I wanted to), and I’m just trying to figure out WHY nothing works. These cats can sense our fear. I’m afraid of my cat ever since she attacked
      me, so maybe that could be it. She probably thinks I’m Scared all the time so she can somehow control me

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        January 28, 2016 at 5:35 am (4 years ago)

        Cats are sensitive to energy and she does pick up on your fear, but she most definitely is not trying to control you, Jasmine. That’s not how cats think. She’s exercising her natural prey behavior, and you need to give her an alternate way (via play) to do that.

        Reply
  14. Alicia
    October 7, 2015 at 2:04 am (4 years ago)

    Hi, I was wondering if you’d be able to answer a question I have. There’s this stray cat that I spend time with and pet for about an hour daily, on the way to school and back home. It used to bite (but has never drawn blood) when I was still learning where it liked to be petted, and it enjoys being pet now (and even gets up from its afternoon nap to greet me! even though I’ve never fed it). But lately after a while of petting it gets down and rolls over, exposing its claws. Once I tried to continue petting it & it held my hand with its paws (but not claws) and bit my hand. I’ve taught it not to bite unnecessarily in the past, by saying no and walking away after it bit me but now when I remove my hand and say no and walk away, it meows and it kinda sounds like a cat version of “why aren’t you playing with me”. Am I interpreting it correctly? Sometimes I ignore it after it rolls on its back and say no, and it sits up again and I continue to pet it. I’m thinking maybe its previous owner who abandoned it used to let it play with their hand without teaching it not to use its claws or teeth, and left it there because they couldn’t stand the biting. It’s a lovely cat really, when I have to leave it to go to school it walks with me to the end of the block where it hangs around. 🙁

    Reply
  15. Rosa
    January 5, 2015 at 2:51 pm (5 years ago)

    Hi!

    Great post!
    I was wondering if you could help me out with something my cat does that is similar. My cat does something that I can only describe as “love bites”. He is very needy and loving. He always loves to be petted but whether or not I am in the middle of petting him (although he obviously likes it as he purrs and purrs and rubs on me and kneads) he all of a sudden bites me. This is is no way aggressive, but it still hurts. He starts with a slow bite but then he puts more pressure. He never draws blood though. I am not sure what this is about. Sometimes he is sitting quietly on my lap kneading and purring then bites my arm. Or sometimes he bites my chin or whatever he can grab. He doesn’t suckle or anything either. It would love for him to stop because it kind of hurts and also sometimes it freaks my guests out when they are getting to know him. I don’t want my guests that don’t know cats think this is an aggressive behavior and then have negative feelings toward cats. Let me know if you have any suggestions for me! Thanks ! 🙂

    -R.

    Reply
    • Rosa
      January 5, 2015 at 2:58 pm (5 years ago)

      PS.

      I really want to stress that this is not aggressive behavior, which is why I am s confused as to how to handle this. Sometimes he comes to me and snuggles up, makes himself comfortable purring away, then he finds someplace on me to bite, usually my chin or arm. I know when he gets tired of my petting him and when he wants me to stop. So I know what it feels/looks like when it’s petting aggression.

      Please help!

      Reply
      • Lori
        April 15, 2015 at 9:13 am (4 years ago)

        I read when they play bite it means they like you.she never bites hoards. More of a playful thing or if he’s just irritating her and she’s telling him to stop and he doesn’t she bites. But like I said never hard or drawing blood. Just more of her grabbing his finger paws wrapped around it and she love bites. So lining think it’s actual aggression on her part. She has been doing it to him since she found him and started feeding her when she was starving but I will read the link you sent Ingrid.
        But he does deserve it if he’s irritating her.and believe me he does.
        She’s never done it to me. She follows me wants held and petted mostly. She’s very loving. She a actually opens the bathroom door to come in with me if I shut it again just to tease her she keeps opening it. Kinda like a game. But I never fully shut it till it clicks because I have the 2 little dogs who just have to follow also. Then my big one just pokes his head in to see me then walks away. So it’s like truly having kids. Never a moment alone.
        Still checking out names to see what she responds to besides kitty or cat.nothing yet.

        Reply
  16. Diana
    April 23, 2014 at 3:48 pm (5 years ago)

    That’s what I’ve put on her bio – no other animals and no small children. She was certainly poorly socialized but she has made tremendous progress in the last two years. I just feel that her progress has plateaued out and I’ve not been able to get it jump-started. She only just started purring a few months ago. The fact that she can trust humans at all is a miracle in itself. She really needs to get out of that room and into her own territory. The kind of adopter that she needs is hard to come by these days.

    Reply
  17. Diana
    April 23, 2014 at 12:52 pm (5 years ago)

    I am a foster mom for a rescue. I have a cat that was put outside young and was 3 1/2 years old when I got her. I have had her for two years. She bites to play and also when she is frustrated or overstimulated. She really doesn’t seem to get the concept of toys. She might play for a few seconds then she stops. I’ve tried several different wand toys with the same result. A few toys ago, I was trying to get her to stalk a furry toy which she had little interest in, but when she looked up and saw that my hand was attached to the toy, her whole face lit up and she jumped up to try to grab my hand. I can’t integrate her with my cats or other fosters because she is afraid of them. She reacts with a big show of aggression towards them and gets them really wound up. I don’t know if they realize that she is just posing but she got out of her room one day and my oldest boy went after her. I broke it up immediately but, several months later, she still won’t come out of her room voluntarily. When the incident occurred, I had to rescue her from the deepest, darkest corner of a closet and hold her until she stopped shaking. I also tried once to introduce her to a young kitten and she couldn’t handle that either. I’m very fond of her and I really want her to be adopted. She is a tortie, Siamese mix and one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever fostered. If anyone has any suggestions, please pass them on. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 23, 2014 at 3:36 pm (5 years ago)

      It sounds like you’re dealing with more than just play aggression, Diana. Perhaps she would do best in a home where she would be the only cat? It would probably still take someone who really understands cats and is willing to work with her.

      Reply
  18. Bernie
    April 7, 2014 at 9:22 pm (5 years ago)

    It does help to have more than 1 kitten/cat. They can play themselves out and you still enjoy a happy home.

    Reply
  19. mehitabel
    April 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm (5 years ago)

    I’m sure this article suits many cat owners….but not me.
    I go for the bite!….If I’m adopting a new cat….I look for a biter.
    I’ve so many that truly understand…..and enjoy…..the play bite….and the paw grab with claws retracted as much as possible.
    I’ve enjoyed so many cats….that could do real damage if they wanted to…. and they understand and love the play bite, the play grab, and the play wrassle.
    ….maybe I’m just a masochist….I know I’m an animal…..

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm (5 years ago)

      Unfortunately, the “play bite” is also the reason why many cats are returned to a shelter. It’s great that you and your cats are happy, but it’s definitely not the norm. 🙂

      Reply
  20. Farynhite
    October 17, 2013 at 3:42 pm (6 years ago)

    Great advice. A 4 week old orphan recently joined our family and I’ve had to teach her everything but was wondering about the play biting/scratching because my previous cat grew up to be a rather aggressive and possessive cat and I raised him playing with my hands and arms (which would get very scratched up). Our new kitty is a bundle of energy and loves to play but we have a baby girl, Ingrid, who absolutely cannot get scratched but has bonded immediately with the kitten so I was hoping I could find an insightful solution and viola! I will definitely keep this kitty’s playful aggression at a pole’s distance.

    We also have a chihuahua and yellow lab whom the kitty seems eager to play with!

    Reply
  21. Lisa Richman
    February 23, 2012 at 12:46 pm (8 years ago)

    Yes, another great article, shared with the cat volunteers at our shelter. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm (8 years ago)

      Thanks, Lisa. I see your boys chimed in above :-). At least Maxwell is giving you credit for doing things right!

      Reply
  22. Bernadette
    February 23, 2012 at 9:22 am (8 years ago)

    How nice to hear from Harry!

    This is one of the most difficult things to convey to a potential kitten adopter, because it’s the most natural thing for humans to turn our hands into a kitten and have a fun little play session! I always use the kitten/adult cat analogy–it’s not bad now when the kitten is tiny, but later you’ll have a cat who attacks your hand because they think it’s a toy–because you taught them it was.

    I always keep a stack of soft attackable toys handy with kittens, and when one of them attacks my hand, as they inevitably do because that’s what they do, I slip one of the toys between them and my hand, extract my hand, then go on to a toy like a wand or at least something enticing on the end of a string, and let them get it out of their system.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm (8 years ago)

      Keeping toys on hand to distract bitey kittens is good advice, Bernadette. Allegra’s play aggression mostly manifested by going after my legs, and I would toss a stuffed toy about the same size as her at her so she could wrestle it rather than take her excess energy out on my legs.

      Reply
  23. Harry
    February 23, 2012 at 8:24 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks for the forum, Ingrid!

    Reply
    • Ryker's Boyz 'n' Allie
      February 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm (8 years ago)

      FaRADaY: Mommy sez WONDERFUL article! (And she wants to rat me out as a nipper. *snif* Humans.)

      Maxwell: dude, that’s cuz you NIP. But momma does exactly what she’s supposed to do. You should see the hurt look on Faraday’s face when she says “OW!” and disengages.

      Reply
  24. Ingrid
    February 23, 2012 at 8:23 am (8 years ago)

    Apparently, the gremlin comments ate a comment from Kobi. Her question was “What about a cat that bites if you are not giving them attention. I have a cat that will headbut and ram into me when I’m in bed. if I ignore him he will bite my hands and make a weird meow/chirping noise.”

    My answer: If this only happens when you’re in bed, I’d make sure that he gets a good play session before you go to bed. Really tire him out. In general, structured play, twice a day, 10-15 minutes, can help with a lot of these issues.

    Reply
  25. Bobbi Hahn
    February 23, 2012 at 8:16 am (8 years ago)

    Another interesting and informative post, Ingrid!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 23, 2012 at 8:24 am (8 years ago)

      Thanks, Bobbi!

      Reply
      • elke
        June 20, 2017 at 7:10 am (2 years ago)

        Hi, my cat sometimes waits outside the shower to nip my ankles, it seems like she is over excited by the shower. She doesn’t do this at any other time – any thoughts? I shut her out of the bathroom now, to avoids the bites.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          June 20, 2017 at 8:02 am (2 years ago)

          It does sound like she somehow associates the shower with excitement, or she may like the scent of your shower gel or soap. Try taking a toy into the shower with you, and toss it for her as you get out to distract her.

          Reply

3Pingbacks & Trackbacks on Play Aggression in Cats: Biting the Hand that Teases

  1. […] cats is always a distressing problem for the cats and the humans involved. Whether it’s play aggression, petting aggression, or redirected aggression, dealing with feline aggression is stressful and […]

  2. […] recently covered petting aggression and play aggression in cats. Today, I’d like to address one other form of feline aggression, and it’s one […]

  3. […] end a play session with your cat catching her toy, otherwise you’ll find yourself with a frustrated cat who will take her leftover excess energy out in ways you may not approve of, such as scratching your furniture, or biting your […]

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