Most of the time, kittens want to play and cuddle. But every once in awhile, they sink their tiny teeth in for a taste. Don’t take it as a personal attack—kitten biting is a normal behavior that is part of a cat’s natural development, explains Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis.
“They’re trying to learn how and when to use their mouths and feet, both to hunt and to protect themselves,” he says. “We don’t want them to learn that we are either food or a threat that they need to use their weapons on!”
Whether you have an occasional nibbler or full-on chomper, follow these expert tips to stop kitten biting before it becomes a problem.
At first, kitten nibbles can be cute and easy to ignore. But don’t delay stepping in, says Buffington. Early intervention will not only prevent more painful bites down the line, but you’ll create an opportunity to bond with your pet through training. While it’s possible your kitten will simply outgrow the biting habit, Buffington says it’s a much better idea to start addressing the behavior head on. “Why take a chance when we can help both the owner and the kitten establish a better relationship?” he reasons.
Offer a Toy
Your kitten was born with natural prey instincts—she needs to hunt something, so make sure that something isn’t your hand. Buffington recommends providing a variety of cat toys as soon as your kitten starts biting. “Toys can mimic flying prey—bird-like toys—or fleeing prey such as mice, laser lights or treats skittering across the floor,” he says. “Some cats don’t care what kind of prey is offered but some do, so I always recommend that owners offer choices to ‘ask the cat’ what her preferences are.” Take cues from your kitten and offer toys when she goes into hunting mode and remove them when she loses interest.
Introduce Food Puzzles
Again, it’s important to remember that your cat has prey instincts—and dinner doesn’t come easy in the wild. To keep your kitten engaged at mealtime, Buffington recommends introducing food puzzles to mimic foraging. Puzzles are available at pet supply stores, but there are plenty of DIY tutorials as well. For an entry-level food puzzle, simply divide your kitten’s dry food up in an ice cube tray and let her “hunt” it little by little.
Conjure a Hiss
Have you told your kitten that biting hurts? A lecture won’t get you anywhere, but it may help to mimic the noises his annoyed siblings would make. “You can try to hiss and perhaps even give a short, sharp “eeek!’ cry to let him know teeth hurt,” says Amy Shojai, author and certified animal behavior consultant.
Praise Good Behavior
When correcting your kitten’s behavior, it’s important that he doesn’t become afraid of you. While cats are predators, they’re also prey to larger mammals—and you, human, are a larger mammal. So instead of yelling loudly and reprimanding your cat, consider rewarding him when he’s acting appropriately. “Cats learn what not to do from their environment and what to do from their owners, who can then praise them for doing the right thing,” says Buffington. Cue the cat treats!
Adopt in Pairs
Need an excuse to bring home two kittens? Good news: adopting in pairs leads to less biting and better behavior all around. After all, no matter how dedicated a trainer you may be, you’re not a native “cat” speaker. “One of the best teachers is another cat,” says Shojai. “Mom cat and siblings are quick to teach kittens that biting hurts. When a kitten has no playmate, they’re much more likely to turn your ankles and hands into attack targets.”
John Plichter is a writer and advertising professional from Philadelphia. He and his girlfriend share their home with rescue dogs Murph and Elmer, who are three-legged and blind respectively.