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How to temper your new kitten’s biting, licking and scratching

By on January 29, 2014

A reader recently inquired about her new kitten and her questions are surely pretty common. Her new family member is surely cute and cuddly at times, but at others, it has a tendency to get a little “mouthy.” That’s to say that kitty likes to use her tongue and teeth to bother and play a bit too hard with mommy.

Why is it that kittens do these things? For one, it’s natural- but to what extent? When can we consider licking, biting and clawing a problem? We’ve examined articles and commentary from experts and (hopefully) will provide readers with some information and help to temper kitty’s behaviors.

The first thing we should do is find out why kittens do what they do. It’s at that point that we can determine when a behavior will stop, at what point or to what extent the behavior is typical, and simply get to know our feline friends a little better.

At the risk of sounding simple here, we’ll start by saying kittens are playful. Tell you something you don’t know, right? Well, understanding that a kitten, like a toddler, sleeps a lot, has a ton of energy and wants attention, kittens will be kittens. They seem to be especially playful and energetic at about the time you want to go to bed, too, which is so convenient! The reason for this is cats are nocturnal animals by nature. As time goes on and they get used to you and your schedule, this will likely change.

Kittens like to roughhouse a bit, especially with each other, for many reasons. This is how they establish dominance, for one. Another reason for the chomping is simply that this is how they know to play. Humans wrestle or give “noogies” or tickle. Kittens bite. As long as there’s no hissing or vengeful slashing with claws, you know they have good intentions- to have a little fun.

If the playfulness, which includes biting, gnawing, licking and pouncing, gets to be too much to handle, a little behavioral therapy could help. A common practice that is safe and effective involves a spray bottle, water and a bit of lemon juice. When kitty bites too hard, give it a little squirt and a redirecting “No!” You must be careful, however, not to be too harsh or overuse the bottle. It won’t take kitty too long to get the idea. As an aside, the citrus is aromatic in such a way that it acts as a deterrent in and of itself. Apparently, someone found out once that kitties don’t like citrus. Thanks, citrus person! Positive reinforcement is always a good measure to take as well.

Kittens must have play, however, to increase socialization and trust in its owner. Here’s a tip- when you are rolling around with kitty, giving it playful belly rubs and the like, put on long sleeves and a pair of gloves you don’t care too much about. Kitty can jump and bite and have a grand ol’ time and you leave unharmed. It you feel play is getting too rough, redirect kitty and teach it how much play is enough.

Catsofaustralia.com echoes our thoughts and has a bit more explanation of why kittens seem to be so rough in their play:

Kittens play aggressively because that’s what comes naturally to them. Many people get a kitten believing that they are sweet cuddly little pets but be aware they have their moments. Kittens can be all teeth and claws! You have to remember that kittens have an instinct to play rough. It is part of a normal kitten’s development to play aggressively because they are learning the predatory skills that a cat in the wild would need to know for survival. On a reassuring note, most kittens grow out of the aggressive stage and grow into adorable, sweet-natured cats who would never dream of biting or scratching you.

As to the idea of redirection, the aforementioned site agrees with us:

Withdraw play if things get really rough and the kitten begins to bite or scratch you. Just as a kitten learns from his siblings and mother, he will also learn from you. If he bites or scratches and becomes overly aggressive with you, simply end the game. Tell him in a stern voice “NO” and with a loud clap of your hands. Walk away and ignore him.

Here’s another interesting note from them- if your kitty plays too hard or unexpectedly latches onto your arm or takes a swipe at your face, do the following: First, play along for a bit if you aren’t in too much pain. Kitty could be doing this to simply arrest your attention. If the play continues to be rough, grab the scruff of the cat’s neck, hold it down and growl at it.

Growl at it? We’ve never heard of this or tried it, but if you’d like, give it a shot. Maybe you are mimicking their mother? Not sure, but it must have worked on some kitty somewhere…

Another helpful tip from the Australia cat people: Kittens like to bite and kittens like to play. This we know. To deter kitty from always using you as a play toy, get a variety of real play toys. Kittens will likely avert their energy and attention to those things once in a while, thus sparing you and your forearms a bit of agony. Kittens like toys with tails, with bells, with feathers, with catnip inside of them and much more. Hit up the pet store and you’ll not be at a loss for selection.

Also, if your kitty likes to scratch you on top of biting, check out products that can attract them (instead of you) for scratching. Some owners like to declaw cats and this is a personal choice. If you are to keep kitty armed with his or her sharp nails, get a scratching pad or post. This will save you from harm and also save other things like curtains and furniture.

While we’re talking about declawing (again, a personal choice that needs an expert’s services), we’ll add a note about spaying or neutering kitty. Especially in male cats, neutering can reduce the aggressive behaviors that are unsavory. Females can calm a bit after the surgery as well. We at Pets In Omaha are strong supporters of the “spay and neuter your animal” movement as a means to control the pet population. There are low-cost vets and clinics for this, too. Do a little research, check out our partners and friends through our directory, and help that cause.

As for the habitual “licker cat,” we’ve got some tips and information that issue as well. Kittens like to bite, scratch and lick. That’s what they do. Again, it’s a good idea to know why, so we found a great article about why your kitty likes to lick you to death. Read the article here or check out the summary below.

  • Licking is a means of social bonding. We like to hug and kiss to show affection. Kitties like to lick. Pretty simple.
  • Cats lick you because they like you. Take is as a compliment!
  • Cats use their tongues to groom themselves and others. If your cat is licking you, maybe it is trying to help you a bit with hygiene. What a great and unexpected benefit!
  • If a cat is scared or anxious, they may want you to hold them close and give a little love. If they do lick during these times, again, take it as a compliment as they are showing you they trust you.
  • On getting kitty to stop from licking- distract them. Divert their attention with a toy or something else to do. Given the above statements about licking, however, just let the cat lick you for Heaven’s sake.
  • Kitty might just want to play. Biting and scratching may be the way to go for some, but other kitties like to lick to have fun. Weird.

We’ve also heard that some kittens lick because they were taken from their mothers a little too soon. This makes sense. If you suspect that this is the case, let your cat lick away. It will develop trust, give them a bit of peace and take the edge off. Sometimes you need a drink or something to cool your nerves- cats sometimes just need a little licking session. Play along and be patient.

We’ve given you some tips on what to do to prevent too rough of play sessions, not here are some tips on what not to do with a kitty who gets a little too aggressive:

  • A stern “No!” or a clap will suffice. Don’t shout.
  • Never pop kitty on the head or the behind. This may actually increase aggressiveness. Plus, we don’t hit animals. We just don’t do it.
  • Don’t chase your cat. Chasing it may promote fear of the owner and this isn’t a good way to lay the foundation for a long and happy relationship.
  • Try not to lose your temper with kitty. A calming influence is what you should be rather than one who elevates tension, anxiety or aggression. Take a deep breath, count to 20 and do whatever else it is that you do to bring yourself back to a happy place.

Each article we read and each expert we listen to assures us that kittens that lick, bite and scratch will grow out of this “phase.” That’s not to say they won’t ever bite or claw or lick, but it won’t be quite so often. Again, be patient. Getting to know how your cat ticks will go a long way to dealing with these behaviors that are sometimes a little frustrating.

If you suspect your cat is not growing out of the biting-too-hard or scratching-too-much phase, there are folks who can help. Visit your local Humane Society or cat rescue. Those experts often have training classes and seminars on behavioral issues like these.

Any other questions about kitty? Have a comment? Check us out at Facebook, tweet us or send a message below. Our social media links are atop our homepage. Good luck and love your kitty! your vigilance and effort will surely pay off in the end.

About Eric Forrest

Eric is a pet lover, bookworm and dad. He's had 5 family dogs, 4 cats, a cottontail rabbit he nursed back to health, and two ducks. Cats are his preference, but Eric loves all little critters.

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