Oh noes! Not the toes! nom nom nom
March 8, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop our new cat from chewing on our toes in the middle of the night?

We've recently adopted a young cat and she's great. She's about 18 months old and is very playful. During the cold nights, our feet are safely tucked in and she only attacks them if they wiggle and it is approaching 5am. Now that the nights are warming up, we tend to sleep with one or both feet sticking out of the covers. We've now discovered that will wrap herself around our feet, wait, and then start licking. If we don't wake up in time, she goes from licking to chewing. Apparently, toes are a midnight snack. I'm sure that if we die and she's trapped in the house for days, she'll survive just fine.

So far, the only way we've been able to rescue our feet is to keep them covered or constantly wake up, sit up, grab her and pitch her to the floor. Trying to extract your feet by moving them or trying to push her to the floor with your feet just escalates play with her.

We don't sleep with our door closed because we need to hear and respond to the children in the house during the night. So, closing her out of the room is not an option we'll consider. Additionally, we actually like having the cat sleep in bed with us when she's not nomming toes. Our last cat slept with us for 13 years. It has been been that long since we've had a young cat that we need to educate.

So, how can we train this fiesty ball of fierce?
posted by onhazier to Pets & Animals (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Corporal punishment is the only thing that has worked for us, with this kind of situation. The cat will get tired of getting whacked, and start to associate toe-attacks with unpleasantness.
posted by Danf at 12:54 PM on March 8, 2009

I suspect that she's doing this to try to wake you up. My own cat will start walking over my chest between four and five in the morning. If I don't wake up, he moves on to knocking stuff off the nightstand, and then plain meowing in my face.

I live in a studio apartment, so the only solution for me has been to wake up and put him outside. Which is, of course, exactly what he wants me to do. If you're responding by waking up, she's probably doing a pretty good job of training you, as my cat has done with me. Perhaps you should put baby monitors in the kids' rooms and just shut her out of your room when she starts chewing? The only way to train her from this behavior is to not respond, but clearly, this is difficult when you need to get some sleep.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2009

(Oh, also, if you want to react with a physical punishment, a squirt with a water bottle or water gun will probably work better than a swat of a hand).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:56 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cats can be a real pain when they want to wake you up. She is doing this because she is ready to get up and start her day and she wants to get you up to feed her or keep her company or whatever. I don't really know how to deal with the waking you up thing if you want to let the cat sleep with you, because she will bite you to wake you up even knowing that she is being a bad girl. Cats do grow out of the 'feet under the covers = attack target' phase so she may move onto another way of annoying you. Just don't reinforce her ever by enticing her to attack your feet when you want to play with her.
posted by GleepGlop at 12:58 PM on March 8, 2009

Can you paint your toes with the stuff used to discourage thumb-sucking/nail biting? (There's stuff marketed specifically for pets, too. ) Your cat may quickly learn that toes aren't that tasty any more and will stop (and you can stop painting your toes).
posted by maudlin at 12:59 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Water pistol. It won't hurt her, but she sure won't like it. She will run away to compulsively lick her wet fur for 20 minutes, and your toes will be safe.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:06 PM on March 8, 2009

Water pistol or spray bottle kept by the bed. And look into those automatic feeders that can dispense her food at 5am or whatever.
posted by barnone at 1:10 PM on March 8, 2009

My cat used to bite my toes one by one when he was ready for me to wake up and feed him. I second (third, fourth) the posters who are suggesting a spray bottle or squirt gun. It should help immensely.
posted by kate blank at 1:16 PM on March 8, 2009

Rub orange peel on your toes, cat won't go near them.

The cat is probably tasting salt on your feet.
posted by fire&wings at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2009

Try giving her a blast with some canned air. It makes a scary hissing sound and won't wet the bed covers.

My cat (after 10 years) started to nibble on my ankles when he thought it was time to eat. I only had to blast him twice.
posted by JujuB at 1:36 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unbelievably, this has been asked before.

I favour tucking the duvet under your feet as a solution.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:38 PM on March 8, 2009

Nthing the water pistol/plant mister or the canned air. Note though that if you can't break her of the habit you also have the option of getting some baby monitors for the kids rooms and just locking the cat out.
posted by gudrun at 1:48 PM on March 8, 2009

Wear socks to bed until the cat grows out of this playful phase of her development.

I had a similar situation years ago when a kitten we adopted crawled under the sheets to sleep at our feet. Putting the socks on the feet seemed to quell his interest in suckling/biting without him losing interest in the comfort of sleeping at our feet.

Bonus - kitty shoulder massages every morning just before the alarm went off.
posted by torquemaniac at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry if the 5 am comment was a bit of a red herring. When the feet are under the covers, she really only bothers them at about 5am. When the feet are out of the covers, this goes on most of the night. Last night, it happened at least 10 times through out the night. We were exhausted when we finally got up.

We do find her playfulness reduced if we have her chase the laser pointer for at least 30 minutes before bed. She'll chase it until her sides are heaving.

BTW, it is not a food issue. She gets fed in the evening and there's plenty of food in the bowl in the morning. She's young and feisty. We've just not dealt with this in YEARS. Our last cat passed away in November when she was a sedate 15 year old.

We've got some oranges and I can zest for their oils until we get some water bottles. If those run out before I hit the store again, I'll move to the lemons and limes.

As for the previous post, I missed it in my search. One difference is that these are not nibbles. These are more bitey.

Thanks for the suggestions. We appreciate it.
posted by onhazier at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2009

Thanks for linking to the earlier related thread. It was entertaining and illustrates that the cats don't love us when they're licking our toes. They're checking to see if we're dead yet.
posted by onhazier at 3:05 PM on March 8, 2009

One thing to consider as an addendum to the other suggestions is to not feed your kitty in the morning. Feed it at night right before bed. I switched to that with my cats and it has been so much better. For one, they stopped associating our morning wakeup as food time. And then they stopped pestering us for morning food at whatever way-too-early breakfast time they had deemed appropriate. The nighttime food also seems to give them something to "do" in the night that keeps them occupied.

If I happen to get up in the morning and see that they need more food for the day or, heavens, we forgot to feed them before bedtime, then I always wait until after I've made my coffee before they get food. They see that I'm doing my thing and they really don't pester too much.

I guess I'd advise the water pistol or closing the door. I think you'll really have to be diligent and train this out of the cat.
posted by amanda at 4:54 PM on March 8, 2009

Corporal punishment is the only thing that has worked for us, with this kind of situation. The cat will get tired of getting whacked, and start to associate toe-attacks with unpleasantness.
posted by Danf at 12:54 PM on March 8

This is the dumbest fucking answer possible and you are behaving in a way that is both ineffective and unethical. The animal will not associate the behavior with pain, it will associate you with pain. You are severely fucking up the animal's socialization with humans and if you have or are planning on having a child (please don't), it would be best for all parties involved that you refrain from owning a pet of any kind.

A real answer that is a bit cleverer than "punch it until it stops": if you want an animal to not chew on stuff, including your toes, a bitter spray on your feet before you go to bed will be highly effective. That shit is nasty and it works, and it doesn't require battering a tiny animal.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:41 PM on March 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

Your feisty young cat is merely testing your boundaries. All you need to do is communicate to your cat "You have gone too far! Quit it!" The easiest and clearest way to do that is to do exactly what a kitten would do if her brother bit her: She would yowl and jerk away. So scream "Ow!!!" as loud as you can, loud enough to frighten her, and jerk your foot away.

Please: Communication, not corporal punishment.

At least this worked with my cat.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:23 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Optimus Chyme's comments. Hitting an animal is abuse. An individual prone to using "corporal punishment" (euphemism for abuse) should not cohabit with animals that s/he may hurt.

We have a cat who munches on hands in the early morning when he is hungry. Yes, there may be food in his bowl, but he craves a different dry food treat. I simply keep this by the bedside and drop some into a plastic bowl by the bed for him, and he stops the hand-nibbling right away.

And BTW, when he does something that may be dangerous or worrisome, I simply say "no." He stops. It's not magic. It's learned communication between two beings who trust one another.
posted by terranova at 8:14 PM on March 8, 2009

Uh, taking this back to DefCon3 - the thing to remember about casts is that they're not richly endowed in the theory of self department. They tend to interpret violence as a new, more intense game. One that, frankly, they're better equipped for than you.

For example, when playing the "I can touch your nose/ears before you can claw me" game, don't get all bent out of shape when you learn that the penalty for not touching their ears/nose before they claw you is minor arterial bleeding.

Second a shout. Or maybe on of those automatic cat feeder things set to go off at about 4:30 am.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:08 PM on March 8, 2009

Just a note: even if the kitty is well-fed, an automatic feeder might do the trick. Toward the middle of the day, Sammy Katz often refuses to eat his dry crunchies unless they're sifted around in the bowl--I suspect because either they get stale or because he's a diva. The automatic feeder has added cat entertainment value, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:24 PM on March 8, 2009

We clap loudly when the cat does something we wish she wouldn't. It works 85% of the time. My Dad likes to throw a magazine because it fans out in the air, makes some noise and flutters down. It looks big and imposing but don't actually harm the cat.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 11:43 PM on March 8, 2009

Just a reminder to all animal owners (especially Danf) that punishment teaches nothing but fear of more punishment and fear of the person administering it.

The most effective way you will teach your young cat to quit with the toe chomping is to totally ignore it. Eventually she will give up if she gets no reaction from you. Don't squeak, mumble or speak to her. You need to train yourselves to not respond to her biting as much as you need to train her to stop doing it.

Squirting, yelling, distraction, throwing things near by, pitching her to the floor are all attention, and this is what she wants. So, when she chomps on your feet, just ignore it - make no sounds, move your feet back under the covers immediately and carry on ignoring it. Then ignore it some more. She will give up eventually as she is getting no reward. Keep on ignoring it until she wanders off.

Squirt bottles are of limited use when the animal associates the water jet with you. They will learn to avoid behaviours that you don't want when you are around and resume them when you aren't there - this knowledge will hold you in good stead for future training. Water squirts are only useful if the animal can't see or hear where the jet is coming from - you won't be able to use this method covertly whilst in bed.

Make sure any substance you put on your feet as a deterrent are safe for pets. Don't use essential oils of any kind as although they can repell cats, they often poison them fatally as well - this includes eucalyptus, menthol and the ubiquitous favourite - tea tree oil.

Be consistent, give it plenty of time and your young cat will learn.

Best of luck.
posted by Arqa at 5:07 AM on March 9, 2009

First, let me assure you that we don't hit. Hitting is not an effective training method for animals or humans. We're also licensed foster parents. So, hitting would not only cause us to have our license revoked, we'd never have another child placed with us and possibly face criminal charges.

As far as training the cat to not exhibit this behavior when we're not there, that's what we're looking for. This behavior is only being used on us, the adults in the house, and only during the night when we're sound asleep.

As for ignoring it, I got a good chuckle out of that suggestion. You are suddenly awakened by a set of teeth chomping on your little toe and you're supposed to ignore it? When you're suddenly awakened like that, you're not terribly logical. Your lizard brain is screaming "ow, ow, make it stop!" Screaming that vocally to startle her would a) wake the person in bed not being chewed on, b) wake the other household sleepers and c) set the dogs to barking.

To clarify, when I say "pitch her to the floor", I'm not throwing or tossing her. I grab her with two hands, swing her body over the edge of the bed and then drop her to the ground.
posted by onhazier at 5:49 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yep, it does take some presence of mind and some full on self control to ignore those fangs sinking in to your feet. But it can be done, and it does work. Giving her any kind of attention is rewarding her behaviour.

My point about using the water squirt in this situation is that it won't be possible to separate you and the squirt of water in the cat's mind. If she sees you reaching for the water gun, she'll learn to stop biting. When you put the water gun down, she'll learn that she can bite again. She can't bite your feet if you aren't there. She won't want to bite your feet if she gets no response from you. Ignoring her is pretending that you are not there.

To clarify - the anonymous squirt of water is most useful for other situations such as scratching furniture, counter top walking - times when you can use it and she won't associate it visually or aurally with you.

You could always try wearing socks in bed like torquemaniac suggested - this might offer your yummy toes some protection and make ignoring easier!
posted by Arqa at 6:43 AM on March 9, 2009

Arqa while I agree with you about hitting, and ignoring bad behavior generally, OP is right--having gone through this, at 5 am, while full, or mostly asleep, it's physically impossible to ignore this behavior (especially if obhazier's kitty is anything like mine and just choose to escalate it until she gets a response). "Presence of mind" is an unrealistic expectation of any pet owner in this situation.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:00 AM on March 9, 2009

I suspect that my method may not work for you since there are sleeping children in the house... but similar to screaming "ow!" or having a spray bottle, I have a coffee tin filled with a handful of coins.

This how I signal my anger with kitty. At first I used it by standing up, saying "NO" or "STOP IT" loudly and giving it a shake.

Now, even a tiny shake of it gives my guy the message. Sometimes he still pushes it a bit but then a bigger shake or a normal shake while staring him down usually always does it. For the morning wake up routine, all I need to do is wake up in a haze, find the can and move it to my nightstand and then pass back out. He still hangs out in the room but he knows that if he's a jerk, the loud scary noise will come back.

Please note, this is never loud enough or close enough to him to be painful or damaging. I consider it similar to a spray can but without getting things wet.

Re: Arqa's comments... yes this makes the cat associate the can with me... but that's what it is for. It's a tool to exaggerate how imposing I am. I only use it for behaviour that I want to stop around me... he can be a brat in the bedroom all he wants while I'm at work :)
posted by utsutsu at 7:40 AM on March 9, 2009

We added a water bottle to each night stand. She was sprayed about 4 times in the first week and now bolts when we reach for the bottle. She's learning. Thanks all.
posted by onhazier at 5:56 AM on April 9, 2009

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