Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What I know - How to deal with mouthy kittens



One major issue people who foster kittens foster face after the kittens become healthy is the fact that they are often very mouthy. Kittens explore the world with their mouth and it is quite normal that they will inevitably try to nibble and chew on you, but there are some kittens that really enjoy biting you. A kitten that bites can turn into a cat who bites and that can be a serious problem. Learning how to communicate with kittens and letting them know this is not acceptable will help you nip this issue in the bud.

First off, I want to make it clear that they aren't biting you to hurt you, they are biting to play and explore and learn. If you ever watch two kittens playing together you will see it inevitably comes down to wrestling, which involves a lot of biting and 'bunny kicking' with their back legs. It looks like it hurts but they do it a lot so it is obviously quite pleasurable to them. If you spend a lot of time observing their play, you will notice that when one kitten goes too far, the kitten that is harmed will cry out and stop playing. The offending kitten will stop wrestling and gently lick their sibling in an almost "I'm sorry" conciliatory nature.


Extrapolating from this, I created what I ended up calling the "ow method" of communicating with kittens about what biting humans can mean. When I have a kitten that really enjoys chewing on my skin to the point where it hurts, I will say "ow" in a high pitched meow-like tone and I freeze. You know you have the tone right when the kitten stops biting and starts to lick you.

Saying "ow" and freezing mimics the two primary communication tools the kittens employ to keep themselves safe during play. When kittens understand that they have been too aggressive, they alter their play slightly to tone it down a bit the next time. This means instead of biting really hard, they bite mostly really hard. If they are 'told' they bit too hard again, they tone it down a bit more. Changes are subtle but they are there. They want to bite as hard as they can without hurting each other because that is how they learn and strengthen their jaw muscles so when they have to kill their prey they can.

This subtle change will happen to you as well. Once you have the right tone for the 'ow' you'll notice that the kitten might bite you in a different spot, or not bite you quite as hard. After a couple of ow's the kitten might think you are no fun and go off to find other playthings.

Since humans are generally such fun toys though, you will find that they will most likely come back and try again. It might be in a few minutes, or a few hours, or even the next day. Some kittens are obsessive about biting and you need to start the 'ow' method whenever the kitten comes too close to you and starts trying to bite you. Several times over the years I have had very mouthy kittens which end up looking at me as if to ask "just how delicate are you?" which made me feel a bit like a very useless kitten (which is actually okay since I'm not a kitten)

I know some foster homes who choose different vocalizations. Some say "no" and some say "gentle". What is key in all of these vocalizations is consistency. If you start telling the kitten to not bite you and then tell the kitten it is okay to bite you later, the kitten won't know if you just weren't feeling well that day, or if the kitten bit you in the wrong place the first time, and it will set back your training quite a bit.

Knowing how to communicate with your kittens is very important. It is why I let my foster kittens play with my hands and chew on them if it does not hurt or break my skin. I have found over the years that letting kittens know just how hard they can bite you without hurting you is incredibly important. Just avoiding the issue by not letting them play with your hands at all doesn't help the kitten understand that human skin is delicate when compared with a cat's that is covered in fur and you are at risk of a full blown cat bite when the kitty was just trying to give you a warning.

14 comments:

  1. You are such a smart human!

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  2. Good tips! Kittens are almost always bitey when they come to you and need to be taught some manners!

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  3. I do the "ow" too and it does work well.

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  4. It's been so long since mom's had to deal with Bitey McBiters... Like me. I was very Bitey in my fuzzy youth. Which is why mom got Leia, so I'd have someone else to chew on at 3 am.

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  5. Huh! Everything I've read says 'don't use your hands as toys', which is correct, but I like your approach better! Cats watch our hands, and they certainly know the exact distance of your arm length! Thanks for this post!

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  6. I think it's a good thing for foster parents to teach the kittens how hard is okay when biting humans. If you practice "no hand biting", then the kitten has no baseline later in life to know how to deal with people who insist on picking them up.

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  7. Great tips. We do something similar here. Though we get the occasional persistent biter (ie Versace or "ouch dammit")

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  8. Good info! Now we know why you're an excellent foster parent.

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  9. Even though I don't have kittens I found this really interesting and helpful

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  10. Your last point is a really good one. I have seen a lot of advice not to let kittens bite or play with your hands at all, but it makes sense to let them know how hard they can bite in warning without causing injury. It's part of their communication toolkit, after all.

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  11. Just like real babies putting everything in their mouths :)

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  12. I also do the high pitched "oww" with my own resident cats. With our first set of kittens in the house, we haven't had to do this yet, but perhaps they will try to bite when they're a bit older. This is great info here, thank you!

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  13. Claire had to do it with both of us, and we must say that the "ow" tool works very well. Purrs

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