The Mind of Your Cat: 01/04

Question: I am a veterinary technician at an all-cat clinic. We have a healthy kitten at our hospital that has been here since he was six weeks old because his mother abandoned him. My question is: How we can get him to stop biting and attacking our hands? We have never played with him with our hands. We have tried spanking him, sprays, and have neutered him. We are at a loss.

Answer: I expect many readers can empathize with your situation. You do not mention the age of your kitten, but I suppose that he is less than one year of age, that is, not nearly mature. And clearly, he was not fortunate enough to have spent his early weeks in the company of siblings.

When a kitten is raised with littermates, he is able to learn appropriate play. Most importantly, the responses of his companion kittens teach him how to inhibit his bites. Similar lessons are taught by the queen. The queen also teaches her kittens about hunting, including how to select appropriate targets.

When a kitten bites and pounces upon hands in the context of play, then the behavior is generally described as play aggression. The kitten probably looks as though he is playing. Staring and pouncing are often followed by leaping or racing away.

As the kitten engages in this behavior, he probably does not growl or hiss. His ears are probably forward rather than pinned back, and his fur is flat. The playful kitten should be easily interrupted. That is a key to confirming that the behavior is indeed play-based aggression.

What to do? After all, even though the kitten may believe that he is playing, serious injury can result. And since by definition, play implies mutual consent, when the skin has been broken, so have the rules of play.

Confrontational approaches are not likely to resolve the problem. They often make aggression worse. As the kitten begins to anticipate a threat or challenge, simple play-based aggression can develop into fear-based aggression.

You have already addressed one important aspect of managing play aggression: Never encourage your cat to chase your hands. Wand toys may be used, or toys may be pulled or tossed.

A second tool used to manage play aggression is to try to anticipate the behavior.

Often, cats will pounce while we are engaged in a particular behavior ourselves. For instance, some cats pounce when people write, or turn the pages of the newspaper or type on the computer. In these cases, try to provide the cat with an appropriate play outlet before you engage in these behaviors. Tie a toy to your the chair before you sit down to read or type. Or, stage a kitty hunt – hide some tidbits for your cat to find while you are otherwise engaged.

There may be some circumstances in which you simply cannot work with your cat. For instance, some cats attack hands while we are asleep. In these cases, safety dictates that the cat be physically prohibited from accessing your hands when you are so vulnerable.

Should punishment ever be used? Once the acceptable alternatives are in place, an appropriate punishment may be applied if the behavior continues. Appropriate implies that both the intensity and timing are just right. The cat should be startled but not overly frightened. The punishment must be applied as soon as the cat begins the bite, or when possible, as soon as the cat demonstrates his pre-bite posture. For many cats, a spray of water or compressed air will interrupt the pounce. A loud sound such as a buzzer may also work for your kitten.

If you choose to use a punishment, then use it at its proper intensity the first time around, then each and every time. That is, do not give a mist, then a spritz, then a blast. This graduating system will only serve to teach your cat to tolerate the punishment, requiring you to reach for more intense devices each time. And eventually, you are likely to create enough fear to produce fear-based behavior that can include aggression.

Please do not ever use your hands to correct or punish your cat. You are trying to teach your cat that a behavior can have unpleasant consequences. Your cat should not be taught that you or your hands can be dangerous.

This discussion was based on a working diagnosis of play-based aggression. Other types of aggression can lead to the biting and attacking of hands. For instance, fear-based and status-based aggression can be the reason that a cat bites in response to being handled or manipulated. Some cats, even after neutering, pounce and grab as they might do during a sexual encounter.

If your cat continues to exhibit aggression despite appropriate intervention, then a behavioral consultation would be advised. In all cases of aggression, establishing an accurate diagnosis is essential for safety and to assure that the problem is managed in an appropriate manner.