An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Weaning a Kitten From Biting Humans: Sir Winnie's Story

Dear Greyce,

This must be your time to advise Siamese-cross cats, for I noticed that I'm not the only one of us to want your advice. My problem is that I bite people.

I am a 7-week old male kitten who was abandoned with his sister. About a month ago, we were both adopted into different homes. I now live with three adult cats: Jenny and Sophie are 11-year-old sisters (spayed); Roger is a 9-year-old neutered male.

When I came into the household I was often separated from the others when the situation got tense - so that the other cats could eat and sleep in peace. And boy do they sleep a lot during the day - mostly on the backs of chairs in the living room and sometimes downstairs too.

But frankly, Greyce, no one want to play with me! Of the three of them, Jenny is the most accepting. She will play with me . . . rarely. Sophie usually ignores me unless I get too rambunctious and then she puts me in my place. Roger resents my presence and used to hiss and growl whenever I approached him. Then he would run away. He does less hissing and growling now, but still doesn't want me near him.

Oh yes, there are two adult purrsons, too.

Like all Siamese, I love to play and I can't seem to get enough of it. I am curious and adventuresome. My favourite toy is whatever catches my attention at the moment. I like my fishing pole toy, catnip-filled mice, a big walnut and a soft ball.

I'd love to play with other cats. Dogs, too, as shown when I met a gentle canine visitor. My humans play with me several times a day, for short periods. But it's not enough: I could play non-stop.

When I'm playing games, I don't bite my humans. But when I'm not playing games and see their feet, either stationary or moving, I attack. And if their hands are in range (moving or not), then they're fair game too. And they don't see to appreciate it. The good news is that I can easily be distracted by a moving toy.

Sometimes I hide in a doorway waiting for a purrson to pass by. And then I leap up at them - and usually fall over backwards. After I right myself, I chase after the pant leg moving down the hallway.

We all get outdoor time (which we all love). And when I'm outside (under supervision) I don't bite or scratch the folks because there is so much to catch my interest. However when a big truck goes by I will hide in the bushes.

I am affectionate and love to curl up on a lap and purr very loudly when I'm ready to snooze. When I'm ready for a nap I accept petting, without feeling the need to bite the hand. However when I'm full  ready to play, I do bite when I am being petted.

Why and I doing this, Greyce? Can you help me?

Winsomely yours,
Sir Winnie


Dear Sir Winnie,

There is nothing at all wrong with you! You are a rambunctious, delightful kitten with energy to burn! It's too bad that you don't live near Asjas (from the previous blog entry) because I'm sure the two of you would become fast friends.

If you and your sister had stayed together you might have met your match. However you are in a household where no one's energy level matches yours. Hence the lack of a playmate. Your feline companions are at least middle-aged and none of them has the zip or interest to keep up with you. Your humans don't have the staying power either.

The problem is that you were homed so young - well before the time when you could learn appropriate play from your birth mother and littermates. For when kittens play bite each other, they soon learn that biting hurts and thus they learn to moderate their chomps. They also have companions with matching energy levels so they can tire each other out.

If we don't get your problem under control, you will soon become bigger and stronger. Then your little nips will become big bites - a great threat to all humans concerned.

What's a guy to do?

First let's look at immediate intervention strategies to keep everyone safe. And to help you learn what is appropriate and what is not.

There are three things that, if delivered immediately (meaning as soon as the unacceptable behaviour begins) have a strong chance of working and of training you in proper behaviour. And I do mean, immediately, because we cats don't learn if there is more that 30 seconds between the onset of the bad behaviour and receiving the intervention.

1. Distraction. You already mentioned that this works. So for now, tell your purrsons to 'arm' themselves with distracting devices. For example if they are going to move above the house, they should have a few small toys in their pockets which they can throw in the opposite direction from where they are going, to keep you out of their way.

I once knew a cat who liked to lie in wait for visitors who went to the bathroom. She never bothered them when they went in, only when they went out. The hosts put a basket of small toys on the counter near the door, with a sign inviting the guest to throw one down the hall away from where the guest would head. And it worked.

Another possibility is a fishing-pole type toy that has a very long string. Herself made one for me using a bamboo pole from the garden centre to which was affixed a long (10 foot or e metre) piece of 1" (2.5 cm) wide fleece from the remnant bin in the fabric store; it was held to the pole with electrical tape. To give me a workout, she would walk about the house dragging this pole behind her, and I'd follow and pounce on it. We even know of people who have adapted this just using an even longer piece of fleece tied to their waist and dangling quite a distance behind them.

2. Aversion. You pounce. You bite. And instead of attention (albeit negative in the form of shouting, screaming, running, or smacking), you encounter something unpleasant - stickiness on your paws! Holy sardines!

One of my colleagues used to enjoy pestering the one human family member who reacted the most to being attacked on the legs when she went down the hall. One day she put on her oldest pair of jean and 'dressed them' from the ankles to the knees in double-sided tape (from the local hardware store). Humans can also try  Sticky Paws - used to keep us from scratching upholstery - available from some vet clinics and many pet supply stores. (I prefurr Sticky Paws because it is specially designed to give us a sticky sensation but not harm us or stick to us for good.) When my colleague pounced, he got pawsful of stickiness. A couple of tries of this and he was cured for good.

There is another kind of aversion experience which can be useful in some situations, using taste. In some instances, using Bitter-Apple-for-Cats-with-Dabber-Top(often used to discourage pets from chewing electrical cords and other objects) on clothing can do the trick. From my point of view, I think this is better tried on pant legs than on hands and arms. DO NOT try this on human hands and arms because they are also needed for good things (like cuddling and petting) and you don't want to develop a complete aversion to being handled.

Now a word about water bottles. Some people might resort to spraying you with water when you misbehave. In your case, I doubt it would work. You see some of us love action so much that we actually don't mind being sprayed - just like some kids like getting their folks riled up because at least it is attention (although negative it means someone is paying attention). So just in case you were wondering, that's why I don't advise it in this case.

3. Time-Outs

The time out is an honoured disciplinary tool that if done properly, is quite effective. It does not harm but it is instructive.

Here is how it's done: As soon as the unacceptable behaviour manifests, you are IMMEDIATELY carried to another room, put inside it and the door is closed. You are kept there for 3 to 5 minutes. When your sentence has been served, the door is open so you can leave.

To be effective three conditions must be met: 1) this must happen as soon as you display inappropriate behaviour, 2) there must be no eye contact with your purrson and 3) they must not talk with you. In other words, they must not give you any attention (positive or negative) but instead carry you (gently) like a bag of groceries to be deposited elsewhere. Needless to say, elsewhere means solitary confinement NOT a place with your other cat companions. If there is no room, then your carrying crate is a suitable alternative.

If you go back to misbehaving upon being released, you are immediately given another time-out, the duration of which is extended by a few more minutes. They can be extended again. But if it goes longer than about 15 minutes, please ensure that you have access to a litter box and a bowl of water - wherever you may be. 

Now let's turn to some other strategies for specific situations. These are adjuncts to what I have described above.

Biting Body Parts That Move: To you, body parts that are in motion are like prey. And you just cannot resist the hunt. The first rule of thumb is this circumstance is to stop the motion. Your purrson must become stock still, because lack of motion (i.e., like dead prey) is of less interest. As soon as you have released your bite, said purrson should summarily carry you to another room to cool off (all the while ignoring you - no eye contact, no talk). In other words, a time-out is in order. (If you were not so active, I'd advise the purrson to immediately leave the room - in other words to give you the cold shoulder - but I think you would just be inclined to follow them!)

Biting Immobile Body Parts: When kittens and young cats want to play, they often go up to another of their kind and nip them. This starts the chase and a great game of tag. Unfortunately, purrsons have other ideas. Discipline for this (so that you learn is is unacceptable) is either distraction or a time-out.

Biting While Being Petted: So you accept petting when you are sleepy but not when you are awake - probably because you see petting as an invitation to play under those circumstances. The solution here is an easy one for now: No petting unless you are sleepy or mellow; and immediate cessation of petting if accidentally started when you are in a biting mood, immediately followed by either distraction or a time-out.

Leaping on Humans When They Walk Past You: Okay, enough said. Time out immediately!

Sir Winnie, while you are undergoing this kind of training, your folks must realize that it will not be half as effective if they do not continue to give you the physical and intellectual stimulation you so obviously need. So in the next section, I'm going to talk about fun things to help you run off all that extra energy you have.

Train Your Folks to Help You Get the Most Out of Play

You mention a couple of play sessions a day with your folks and that's great. Play is a form of predatory learning, and we cats are born predators who must exercise our predatory cycle on a daily basis to keep our arousal levels in check. High arousal levels mean that we become more anxious and reactive. And the higher they climb, the less able we are to keep them in check. So play is a great way to let off steam.

You need at least two sessions of 15 to 30 minutes each - one preferably at dusk when most of us get 'ants in our pants' and run around like crazy chasing after thin air - because that is the time when, in the wild, we would hunt. Dawn is the other time, but I doubt your folks would be game for that!

Now your folks probably dread the idea of playing with you even more. But what I'm going to tell you about is how to make them play smarter because this is a case where QUALITY is as important at QUANTITY.  For maximal effectiveness,  your purrson must operate the toy in a way that simulates prey behaviour. We are hunters; so we need to stalk, chase, pounce and kill several times a day.

Here are ways in which you can re-train your folks, so that they can deliver the goods. They are adapted from a behaviourist,  Pam Johnson Bennett who has written extensively on our superior species.

1: Prey never come out when you are in the open. You need to be at least somewhat hidden from them (or they from you). Unfortunately many people think you should play in the middle of the room where there is no cover. Now how many hunters go out in the open rather than hiding under a bush or behind a tree?

No I'm not suggesting that your purrson bring in some dirt and a ten-foot tree to add some realism. However a cardboard box with cutouts can serve as an excellent blind (think duck hunter here). A cushion on the floor can be a barrier (or something behind which prey can hide). A tablecloth or low bench can serve to partially hide you while in hunting pose. 

So let's change the scene. Here are some suggestions. 1) If you are playing in the living room, put a tunnel (bought or constructed from a cardboard box or two) off-side, that is, NOT in the middle of the room but rather beside  the couch. 2) Consider that duck blind I just mentioned. Have a cardboard box (or two) with some entrances or windows cut out to use as escape hatches and ‘blinds’ from which to watch the action – again in strategic locations. Jump in the box and wait for the prey! 3) As stated, some pillows could be propped here and there – for things to go behind. 4) Tissue paper loosely crumpled on the floor makes a great topping underneath which a toy or two can hide. And if the wand or feather goes under the paper, all the better.

And no, I don't suggest this be a permanent redecoration scheme, but rather that your folks vary your play environment (and then put the stuff away when it is not in use - otherwise you will get bored with it).

2: Prey never just walk right up to you. They may wander across your line of vision. They will go away from you. But no prey invites himself to be your dinner.

A common mistake most people make with interactive play is to just dangle the toy in front of you, so you stand on your haunches and box. This is a defensive move and does NOT simulate hunting. It entertains the human but has zippo value to you. No prey would behave so stupidly; so no wonder you are NOT amused.

So make your purrson work. Have your purrson drag your fishing pole toy along the floor. You can watch it and then pounce on it. But it gets more interesting if your purrson drags it behind her as she walks through your home.

I like when it goes around the corner into another room or behind a piece of furniture. And it is very entertaining when it starts to crawl up on the sofa and over the cushions. Of course, such toys can also be airborne.

3: Prey follow a path of some sort, either on the ground (in and around things too) or in the air. And from time to time they stop and rest. For example while birds fly a lot, they also walk on the ground (looking for worms and bugs) and this is the more likely time when they are caught by hunting cats. And after prey has been caught, it will try to get away. Over time of course, it will get more and more tired and become more and more still. Still prey is dead prey - of not much interest.

4: Prey Get Exhausted. They Don't Exhaust You! Some people make another common mistake: To make the toy go off in a dozen different directions at top speed so that you exhaust yourself chasing it and NEVER catch it! This may be human entertainment but only serves to frustrate you. (This is also the reason why many behaviourists now recommend against continued use of a laser pointer as a toy; you can never catch the red dot which can lead to frustration or obsessive-compulsive behaviour.) So you need to insist that they mimic proper prey behaviour. Which leads to my next point.

5: Prey eventually get caught and die. And then you eat them. The game should not continue at a high speed on and on or your 15 minutes will be up and you'll be wound up tighter than a drum! To help you wind down, the prey needs to get exhausted during the last few minutes of the game, getting slower and slower, and finally be dispatched for the very last time.  

Make sure that when you are nearing the end of playtime, your toys start to slow down too, so you can wind down slowly. That way you can chill out. Follow your play session with a small food treat to mimic what you would do in the wild: hunt your prey, catch it and then eat it.

The Great Outdoors - Some of the Best Stimulation You Can Get

Our indoor environments are relatively unchanging compared to the outdoors where mere shifts in the breeze and the change in temperature over the day can change the array of smells and movements that come our way. For a cat like you, your indoor environment is too boring by far. Besides, being outdoors can take some of the workload from your folks.

As you may know, North America has the highest rates of confinement (that is, keeping cats indoors entirely) AND the highest rate of behavioural problems. And even though may humane organizations, cat fancy associations and behaviourists have rallied around the 'keep all cats indoors' slogan, some are beginning to change their tune. Because it's just too difficult for most humans to provide the varied, ever-changing pattern of stimulation that an outdoor environment can provide.

You mention how much you love being outdoors. And you also state that when you are outside, you lose interest in human prey. Here is the key. I want you to take as much advantage as possible of outdoor experience since you live in an area where it is safe to do so.

Now I'm not an advocate of roaming which can be quite dangerous and even more so for a young kitten). But here are two other possibilities for you:

A cat enclosure. I have written extensively about this in my blog entry, An Outdoor Room for Cats (5/10/10).

A cat fence to keep you inside your back yard but prevent other cats from getting in.  See my entry, This Yard IS Mine! (5/20/10). I LOVE my cat fence.

And if either of those interests you, you will also want to consult my entry, Pet Doors (5/15/10).

Depending upon the habits of your cat companions, one of these might suit your situation. And either way, your folks do not have to take the responsibility of supervising your every move, because you would be in a safe environment!

Get More and More Stimulating Toys - Especially for Winter

So I've already addressed one of your priorities: to get your folks properly trained in interactive play. You live in a climate that has four seasons. And being Siamese, the colder weather will make you less inclined to see outdoor experience. We need to keep you occupied during those colder months (and when it rains, too.)

Fishing Pole Toys

So you have a fishing pole toy and you love it. Great! When your bank account is flowing, introduce a bit more variety. I suggest Nekoflies which make a fishing pole with a variety of interchangeable prey (mice, bugs, spiders, even a dragon fly.) They are strong and well made; you could buy one (with the rod) and then add to your collection over time.

I also like Da Bird, consistently rated one of the best interactive toys of the market. It looks like a lot of others but it works in a unique way. My American cousins, Lucy and Emma, give it a rating of 4 paws up! And replacement feathers are available, which really comes in handy.

I have also enjoyed the  Cat Dancer While there is nothing like a fresh grasshopper to give you some get up and go, Herself prefurrs to use the Cat Dancer (available from pet supply stores for around $4.00 Canadian). It is very simple: a coiled wire with some cardboard bits on the end. In fact it looks so simple that many people are not impressed by it in the package. But in action, it is another matter. Herself holds the wire and it goes erratically in the air. Sometimes she gets the bug to go into an open paper bag (or my brand new cat tent) so I can hunt for it there. Sometimes the bug goes between layers of tissue paper on the floor and rustles about to attract my interest.

Laser Pointer

Laser pointers are often touted as a great interactive toy, especially since is requires the least amount of human effort to activate. And while I do have a Laser Pointer I have become bored with it.

 If you have one, tell your folks to use it sparingly or you will become frustrated with it. Some cats who use is frequently (or exclusively) develop obsessive-compulsive disorders. So I don't advise that you use it exclusively or even on a daily basis; but less frequently should do no harm. Just make sure Themselves NEVER POINT IT IN YOUR EYES because the light is intense and could cause blindness.


And don't forget a feather wand. It's like a fishing-pole but instead of being on a string the toy is at the end of a long wand. I love my three-foot feather wand. In fact I loved it to death, so Herself had to go out and purchase several more.

In winter, before my folks get into bed we have a special game. I hop on the bed and Herself messes up the duvet and spreads the pillows around to make an interesting hunting ground. Then the wand comes out. It goes in the air, hits the bed and flops about. It hides under the folds of the duvet. No matter where it is, I watch carefully and pounce. From time to time the feathers fly off. After a while, either I start to lose interest or the toy starts to move more and more slowly, like I've actually maimed it. And after a final pounce, it's dead. And then Herself puts it away for the night. I'm then ready for a snack.

And just as review, here are some things humans should NEVER do. 
Shine a laser pointer in your eyes (it can blind you). 
Use their hands (even gloved! even those gloves with toys dangling from the fingers!) instead of a toy. This is dangerous to them because your will pounce, swat, claw and bite them by accident. And it is dangerous for you, because they will think you are vicious when you decide to bite their hand when they put it under the sheets at night, thinking it's another game.
Leave these kinds of toys out when the human has gone. Cats have been known to strangle themselves or bite and swallow the strings, when unsupervised. Such toys should be kept in a drawer or closet when not in use. Besides they are more interesting if saved for special occasions.

Other Suitable Toys for You

Of course, your folks cannot play with you 24/7 and so you need some toys you can play with on your own. You gave me a list of what you already have and I am impressed. Consider adding to your list a variety of the following.

Some of these are activated by batteries and can be used when your humans are home but don't want to supervise you directly. A good example is Panic Mouse by a company that makes a variety of interactive toys that are operated by batteries. So a human needs to turn them on or off but you can play without the human needing to entertain you. I would, however, strongly advise that these only be used when there is a human at home - to keep an eye on things. Besides, a constantly operating toy will start to bore you, over time.

Other toys can be used for solitary play (so you don't have to bother your cat colleagues) and many of these require you to stretch your intellect. Being Siamese you are intelligent and you need to work your brain (in order to keep out of mischief.

Here are some examples:

Play N Squeak - mouse toys only. I'm less impressed with the wand and floor product line.

The Zig n Zag Ball and the Play n Treat (food puzzle) Ball by Go Cat Go! And speaking of food: I want you to take a portion of your kibble (no more than ¼ to start) and use  a  homemade food puzzle . That way, you have to work to get your food.

Other puzzles include:
Kitty Dipper by Kong

Trixie's Cat Puzzles
Flashing Firefly Mat by Pet Stages. (I'm not as impressed by several of their other toys so don't get caught up by the website.)

There are lots more examples of these kinds of toys on the web. And many are available at local pet supply stores. Homemade versions of some are even possible. So go for it!

Now About Roger

You mention that the cat who is most bothered by your arrival is the other male, Roger. His feelings are important to consider. Efforts should be made to keep the two of you at a distance until he is VERY comfortable with you. Keeping the two of you physically separated, especially when your folks are not a home or are asleep, is extremely important. Roger needs to be safe or I fear he could retaliate. And if that happens when your folks are not around, it could have disastrous consequences. So let's be smart here and take preventative action.

I strongly urge your purrsons to take this warning seriously especially for the first two years of your life - when your hormones rise (before neutering) and when you enter your 'teenage' years - a time when most males want to assert themselves.

Aside from cat trees, some shelving or ramp alternatives to give everyone access to varied heights could also be helpful.  If you are interested in more tips, just ask.

And just to end on a positive note: get up from your nap and drop the following book on your purrsons lap: Nikki Moustaki's, Boredom Busters for Cats: 40 Whisker-Twitching Games and Adventures. (Bowtie Press, 2010).

Keep me informed of your progress, Sir Winnie. You obviously are a winsome cat!