February 20, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I love my new kitty, Agent Cooper, beyond all reason. He's 1 year old and was a stray, and he's been living with me for a month now. The problem is, he's a biter. I'm pretty sure it's an OH MY GOD I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, CHOMP! kind of bite, but I want to be sure I am reading, and handling, his behavior correctly.

This is the young man in question. When I met him in the shelter, he was so affectionate and adorable and such a purr factory that we immediately snuggled and I began crying (I know. I am pathetic.)

When he was placed in the carrier and taken into the car, he was so terrified I thought he might have a kitty heart attack, but he adjusted to life in my house nearly immediately, never hiding, purring and cuddling as soon as he felt safe, and things have been great. He didn't seem like so playful a kitty so much as a born cuddlebug.

Not long after he started to get comfy, however, he began to respond to cuddling and pets with a bite. At first it seemed playful, and then it was hard enough to leave a mark. My general reaction was to shout OUCH! And NO! And perhaps to even hiss - and cuddle time would be over.

It didn't really stop him from giving it a try whenever I'm petting him, though. Eventually I started holding him down by the nape of his neck until he calms down. This makes him purr like he's in ecstasy, but once I let go, he's rolling around, leaping, and biting again. If I let it go on at all it escalates to mark-leaving levels of biting, but it's never aggressive.

As far as I can tell, he's playing/being affectionate. It is now to the point where if I walk by, he leaps on my legs (without claws extended, and he does not bite me), or playfully bats at me as I walk by. I usually just keep walking, although I will sometimes turn around and playfully scritch him, or pick him up, which he LOVES for about 1 minute and then he playfully bites me again and I put him down, purring.

I guess what I want to be sure of is - am I reading the signals correctly? This biting is nothing to worry about, right? And secondly, is there anything I can do to train him out of it, or am I just going to have to accept that he thinks I am Cherry Pie and Coffee all rolled into one and he just needs to give me a chomp when he gets overwhelmed?

Would Feliway help?
posted by pazazygeek to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It does sound affectionate, but you're giving him mixed signals by sometimes rewarding it and sometimes not. The easiest way to deal with it and train him out of it, in my experience, is to just disengage: walk away, sit up, whatever. The more you teach him that biting=removal of the thing he loves, the less he'll use it as a way of expressing love.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 11:30 AM on February 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Also, he probably has some playful teenage cat energy to use up; check to make sure he has enough toys!
posted by c'mon sea legs at 11:30 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like standard young cat behavior. You're doing to the right thing to decide "playtime is over" as soon as the biting starts.

If your cat bites you out of hostility, you'll know it: it's only happened to me once (when kitty was terrified at the prospect of riding in a car), and he easily punched a deep hole in my thumb. Not breaking the skin is playful.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:31 AM on February 20, 2012

Scruff his neck. Say no firmly (but don't yell) in a ... well... "no" tone. (this part may or may not work but has always made me feel better!) Then put him on the ground and walk away. Do this every time he love bites you too hard.

If he bites not hard, don't do it. He will learn eventually what is appropriate and what isn't.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:32 AM on February 20, 2012

It is overstimulation and I think the most natural approach is two-pronged: stop before he bites, but *just* before he bites, so he can learn to deal with it as much as possible. There will be some spots (like many cats and their bellies) that you'll just know are danger zones and you'll just have to avoid those.

Like a small child, if he's wound up he needs to blow off some steam. Do that without contact so he's not getting rewarded for being bitey: have a good round of laser-tag, throw a thing for him to attack, use a dangly toy etc. You can cuddle after he's had a good romp and he'll be far less inclined to nip or claw.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:33 AM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

My parents have a cat that would do this. He just gets so excited he bites sometimes.

I handle it by grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and sternly saying "No" or "We don't do that!" Then I walk away or pet one of the other cats. He's mostly grown out of it.
posted by sbutler at 11:34 AM on February 20, 2012

Also, yeah, this is a cat thing that kind of goes away with age and the proper training. Cats can take awhile to understand the message.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:34 AM on February 20, 2012

Are you sure he's a full year old? I ask because most of my younger cats have gone through bitey stages at around the 6-9 month mark, when they're teething, that mostly settle down considerably after that point. At that point, I solved it by giving them okay things to bite. They can bite the blanket monster all they want, but no biting the bare hand. Having an outlet seems to make the urge to bite people go away pretty quick.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:39 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cosette does playful biting too. Never hissing, but getting bitey when she's in a playful mood. When her ears go back and she tries to lunge while biting, we put an end to playtime.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:39 AM on February 20, 2012

Disengaging immediately is the only thing that's ever worked for my sister and stepmom. Especially with the rescues - there doesn't seem to be any way of teaching them that sometimes it's okay to bite.

(Such a handsome kitty, BTW!)
posted by SMPA at 12:09 PM on February 20, 2012

When a cat bites while you're playing with or petting them, a good way to handle it is to go limp, don't make eye contact or noise; immediately end the cuddles/playtime and withdraw from the cat for a few minutes.

It is a good idea not to allow biting from a housecat, even if it seems playful. We made the mistake of letting our super-cute, teeny little rescued kitten play "attack the hand" and probably inadvertently encouraged him towards his more feral tendencies. He's over two years old now and has his Very Own Person All To Himself (our neighbor loves him, so he moved to live with her - much less stressful for him than our busy household); he's calmed down a good deal as he grew up, but is still kind of wild and aggressive, which is not very cute at all anymore, since he's a big guy. Unpredictability in a housepet is not comfortable for co-existence with them.

I came across this last week - you might find it useful:
Petting aggression in cats: biting the hand they love
posted by flex at 12:14 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

May not be an age thing. We have an older, much older former stray who has slowly come to live in the house. He does all this. He likes it rough. What I do that seems to satisfy the bitey energy is pick him up, turn him over and wrestle him around. Sometimes I lay him on his back and jiggle his legs. Sometime in pick him up over my head and bounce him. (If any of that
makes sense.) This has not in any way made him stop swiping at me, or stopped him from walking up the bed and biting my hand. However, he now does these things to instigate the rough stuff from me, and when we're done he's ready to snuggle. (He purrs like crazy during rough stuff and for feeding. Not so much from petting. He is who he is.)

If I don't want him to bite (and this usually happens in bed), then I pick him up very genty without saying a thing and place him at the foot of the bed. If it happens elsewhere, I just walk away.

Seriously, he's an old (now-snipped) Tom who decided he might be a part-time indoor cat when after he started showing signs of age. He still very playful.

I also have a very old cat who will chase a feather flipper until she is panting - which she has done since she was a kitten. (Although she lasted a longer as a kitten.)

Enjoy your kitty!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:19 PM on February 20, 2012

My cat does this when I'm petting him. It never occured to me that it might be a problem, it's just a thing that (some) cats do as far as I'm concerned. (Actually, I think it's kind of adorable. It doesn't hurt much, once you know what to expect.) I usually let it go on for a while and then just put him down when I've had enough of it. I guess I'm a weirdo for being OK with this behavior, but maybe it's worth considering whether you really need to change this about your cat or whether you're willing to just be at peace with it.
posted by Scientist at 12:36 PM on February 20, 2012

I think Lyn Never has it with the overstimulation theory. This definitely isn't a Feliway thing--he's responding to stimuli and he isn't stressed. I do think age will make a difference (it has with our nipper) but withdrawing is the best thing you can do, and making sure he gets enough play stimulation (or possibly catnip?) will help.

He's a beautiful, beautiful boy--I looked at his picture and just melted.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:38 PM on February 20, 2012

He loves you and also thinks you are fun.. And as he is male kitty and you are female, this is sexual too. (our male cat only tries to bite me during pets, not my husband.). Kitties can be trained, but ONLY with positive reinforcement. When he bites, ignore him until he stops, then mark the stopping with a sound like Yay! and reward with pets/treats/toy. He will figure it out.

He is GORGEOUS btw.
posted by bearwife at 12:43 PM on February 20, 2012

Good suggestions above; I'll chime in and add that when he bites, gently push INTO his mouth, rather than pulling away.
posted by Specklet at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2012

Our 1½-year-old cat Alcibiades (whose tail is even fluffier than yours's!) does this immediately when you start playing with him – he hugs your hand with his front paws, being careful not to scratch you, and then rabbit-kicks your arm with his back paws while be gnaws on your hand. If you stop moving, he switches to licking, so it's definitely sibling-play. We know we should stop playing when he bites but it's so adorable...
posted by nicwolff at 12:58 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agent Cooper! What an excellent cat-name!

We've had luck in training cats not to bite, and/or not to bite too hard, by imitating what we saw a kitten do when our adult cat played with her too roughly: she froze/went limp, and made a tiny squeaking sound of pain/alarm. He immediately jumped back in horror at what he'd done. So with subsequent cats, we would imitate her, and then turn our backs and disengage. Although I find cat love-bites cute, I want my cats to be adoptable by humans with lower pain thresholds, in case of disaster.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:58 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a proponent of water spray bottles. Whenever he bites, give him a good hard squirt or two. It's been at least somewhat educational for my kitties.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:02 PM on February 20, 2012

We did what feral_goldfish did and it's worked really well. They still do it, but generally gently enough that it is cute instead of painful. They've even picked up that I will tolerate much less biting/kicking than my boyfriend.
posted by sepviva at 1:08 PM on February 20, 2012

You might read "The Cat's Mind" by Bruce Fogle for a good behavioral explanation of how cats are wired to deal with physical contact. It does an excellent job of explaining cats in terms of cats and not ascribing human motives or instincts to them.

Cats aren't people or dogs (obviously, but people tend to default to treating them like one of the two in the absence of other models) and they have different rules regarding social contact. In short, when you pet them, they're conflicted. It feels good physically, but socially you're sending mixed signals. Eventually their reflex to defend themselves will win out, since unrelated adult cats in general do not interact with one another by touching unless they're fucking or fighting.

Some cats are down for being petted all day long (usually ones who have been handled by humans from a very early age and think of you/most humans as mother cats), but it's not what you could call default cat behavior. It's also important to use toys to play with kittens, who are not playing so much as being taught to hunt. You don't want your grown cats to associate your hands with prey.

And your kitty is super-cute!
posted by lefty lucky cat at 1:25 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've got a little two-year-old biter of my own. We adopted her at a very young age - 8 weeks - from a rescue group who told us they found her at the age of 2 weeks all alone and had to bottle feed her. She's been a playful biter ever since we brought her home - it never breaks the skin but I really don't think she understands the difference between my hand and a toy mouse.

When we first brought her to our vet and told her story, the vet said "Uh-oh, a single bottle-fed baby huh? Does she bite?" Our vet's theory was that, because she was essentially raised by humans without any siblings, she never learned not to bite as she grew up. Apparently, one of the ways kittens learn not to bite is from their siblings. IE, when kitten 1 bites kitten 2, kitten 2 is gonna bite back. Our vet said it's also possible that because she was bottle-fed, and the bottle was of course held by a human hand, she's come to associate a human hand with food.

It doesn't sound like your kitten was bottle-fed, but it's possible he spent his early kitten years without any other kittens around and never learned not to bite during playtime/pets.

Unfortunately, we haven't trained her out of it yet. For over a year I've been employing the strict "Disengage" tactic. That is, the moment she starts to bite my hand when I'm playing with or petting her, I immediately stop talking, get up and walk away from her. I do not want to dissuade you from trying this tactic; other people have mentioned here that's it worked for their kitty and it may work for you! But, it simply hasn't for mine. I keep disengaging because I don't want to encourage the biting by continuing to give her attention after she does it, but after a year of this I haven't seen any change in her behavior.

I'm afraid that I've just missed the bus on training this out of her, although I think I'll give some of the other suggestions here some thought.

Also, I have to disagree with this --> And as he is male kitty and you are female, this is sexual too

I think this is along the lines of what lefty lucky cat mentioned above about a human's tendency of "ascribing human motives or instincts" to cats. I really doubt there's any kind of sexual motivation behind your cat biting you, unless he happens to be humping part of you as well. My female kitten bites me (a female) frequently. She also bites my stepfather (male, obviously) frequently as well. But my mother (female, obviously) swears this kitten doesn't bite her.
posted by Squee at 2:29 PM on February 20, 2012

One tactic is to offer a toy as a substitute for your hand the instant he starts biting. The Kong Kickeroo toy is good for this. (That is a video - with unnecessary sound - posted by Kong, but it accurately represents cat behavior with the toy IME.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:09 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I sewed two thick gloves (pretty much like elbow-length oven mitts) to use when wrestling with our bitey kitty, Rupert. He quickly learned that he could "play fight" with anyone wearing the gloves but that it was not tolerated otherwise and would result in the immediate withdrawal of attention and affection recommended above. He loves the gloves and will sometimes go find them and inveigle us to play with him using them.

Oh and if Agent Cooper (great name!) is biting you for realz, you'll know. It's awful.
posted by carmicha at 3:29 PM on February 20, 2012

Your cat is cute. When this happens, disengage calmly and quietly. He will grow out of it.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:03 PM on February 20, 2012

I have a cat I adore who behaved kinda crazy too. Eventually after one particular incident I ended up getting a second cat, they chase each other all over the place but he never bites or claws me anymore now that he has another friend to play with. Still snuggly too.
posted by cali at 9:38 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Say 'Ouch' or 'No' in a loudish, annoyed voice. Remove your adorable kitty from your lap/bed/chair or remove yourself from your beautiful cat's presence.

Start now to get your sweet cat used to having his claws clipped regularly; this will help save your furniture and hands. In case it's not clear enough, I think Agent Cooper looks gorgeous. Sounds like he found a wonderful home.
posted by theora55 at 4:29 PM on February 21, 2012

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