When Play Biting Turns Aggressive

It’s time to tamper down predatory stalking, chasing, leaping and wrestling with appropriate alternatives

You may have been amused when your kitten or newly adopted cat first playfully pounced on your ankles or delivered love nips to your hand. But now, his swatting and biting have intensified, leaving you with deep scratches and broken skin.

“Many of these play behaviors mimic predatory behavior, and kittens who have a strong prey drive often engage in more vigorous play, which can develop into play-related aggression,” says Pamela Perry, DVM, Ph.D., a lecturer in animal behavior at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Play in kittens — including exploration, stalking, chasing, leaping sideways, biting, wrestling and swatting — is believed to be a means of practicing for adult behaviors.”

Dangerous Level. But when the behavior becomes harmful, it’s time to stop it before you’re hospitalized for cat scratch disease, a condition caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria. Untreated, you can be at risk for developing skin lesions, fever and fatigue and, in severe instances, systemic infections. Cat bites can be more dangerous than dog bites. They create puncture wounds that heal on the surface, but anaerobic bacteria, which don’t need oxygen to live, are trapped inside.

Dr. Perry offers these tactics to re-school your cat on acceptable play and interaction with people:

Cease direct hand play. Some kittens are separated from their mother and littermates before they learn to inhibit their bites or swat with their claws retracted. Never play with your kittens using your hands or feet or you may reinforce biting and swatting.

Heed early attack signs. Common signs include tail lashing, ear flicking, dilated pupils, tensing muscles and hissing. That’s your cue to stop interacting with your cat. Be alert to redirected aggression. Your cat may look out the window and see another cat, become aroused and turn to the nearest target — you or another cat in your household. Don’t try to calm him. Move out of reach.

Keep a small cat toy in your pocket. To reduce the chance of surprise attacks as your cat lies in wait, toss a toy in front of you or drag a long sash for him to pounce on. He’ll unleash his predatory instincts without causing you harm.

Select the right toys. Provide bouncing, fluttery, moving toys for him to chase and attack. Consider motion-activated toys that move erratically like prey. Keep the toys in a container and rotate them to maintain interest.

Work your cat’s brain and brawn. Food-dispensing puzzles focus his energy on getting food. Kitty condos, cat trees and corrugated cardboard let him scratch and hone his claws.
Never use physical punishment.

Punitive means can backfire and encourage more vigorous play or may result in fear or defensive aggression. If your cat nips you, stand and cease all interaction with him.

Consider adopting a second cat. In some cases, getting another kitten or cat of similar age and temperament may be a suitable solution to provide an appropriate outlet for your cat’s aggressive play style. “This is one of the few times getting another cat may help,” Dr. Perry says.

Finally, be on the lookout for warning signs that over-exuberant play, nipping or clawing have evolved into serious aggression that warrants the help of a veterinary behaviorist. ❖

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