Last Updated on: January 8, 2016 by Ingrid King


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