Dear Doctor- Our experts offer advice to stop hand nipping and excessive hair-removing grooming.

Playful cat bites hands


[From Tufts September 2011 Issue]

I am a new subscriber, and have limited recent experience with cats. I have Grigino (Italian for “nice little gray tomcat”), a very personable 21-month-old cat whom we’ve had since he was 2 months old. He has been neutered. Every once in a while, he tries to bite our hands. When he does this, he will hit at the hand with his paw, probably to control the hand or line it up, before he bites at it.

Fortunately, he never bites hard, and he almost always has his claws retracted when he is playing at this or at most other things. He nevertheless will occasionally draw blood with these antics. Should I be concerned? In any event, how might I try to break him? Flicking him in the nose with my finger doesn’t seem to work, as it just seems to intensify the game for him.
Al Cavagnaro

Dear Al: From the information you have provided, I suspect that Grigino is exhibiting owner-directed play aggression. It is important to remember that play, including play aggression, is a natural behavior for kittens during which they develop motor skills and rehearse fighting and predatory skills. Viewing your cat’s behavior in this light may help you be less fearful of your young feline companion. That said, bites, even if executed during play, can be disconcerting and painful. Play aggression often begins when a kitten is approximately 4 months of age and usually disappears when the cat turns 1, so Grigino should have begun to settle down by now.

While there are a number of triggers for play aggression, perhaps the two most common are insufficient play time to release pent-up energy and petting beyond the cat’s tolerance level. Play aggression usually takes two forms: attack-and-retreat and the ambush. The attack-and-retreat type of play aggression mimics actual fighting and is often triggered by petting. The ambush type of play attack resembles predatory behavior and is often triggered by moving feet or dangling, tapping fingers.

It is important that your cat not be allowed to direct play aggressive tactics towards you as this may teach Grigino that he can control you by using aggression. To avoid being the recipient of play aggression antics, you should learn to read your cat’s body language indicating that he is about to launch another attack. Dilated pupils, a swishing tail, especially during petting, and tense body language are all indicators that you should stop petting Grigino and, if safe to do so, quietly stand up.

If you notice that Grigino is crouched and perhaps treading with his hind feet, preparing for an ambush attack, you should divert his attention to another target by tossing a toy or wadded up piece of paper. You can prevent attacks by engaging Grigino in daily interactive play with moving toys such as feather wands which you can wave so that he attacks the feathers and not you.

A play session should include a “cool down” period at the end where you move the toy more slowly so Grigino can calm down. If he is too riled up, perhaps he would benefit from a time out by being lured into a room where he can spend some time alone.

You should avoid physically punishing Grigino and avoid having a big reaction to his aggressive behavior as this could increase his arousal levels and trigger another play assault. He’ll just figure that you like to play rough.

Finally, be patient. Grigino is maturing and episodes of play aggression should continue to decrease as he ages. With patience, sensible precautions and purposeful play sessions in place, I am confident that you and Grigino can spend many years together as close companions.
Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB
Certified-applied animal behaviorist
Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC
Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital, CT


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