Can I put something bad-tasting on my hands to discourage bitey cat?
June 28, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I have an adult (5ish years old) foster cat who is very friendly and mostly trusts us (we've had her for over 2 years now). She's very loving but is very much her own cat, and would prefer her space be respected at times. I'd like for her to express her moods in non-biting ways.

She's very friendly -- greets everyone at the door and wants to play. She's social and loving, likes to sleep on laps, etc., so this isn't a problem of feralness. She just doesn't know how to express "stop" except by biting.

Sometimes she bites when she just gets too excited from playing or from being in a new bed or something - she gets too happy or overstimulated. Usually, though, it's when I dare to interrupt her when she's busy doing something important.

She doesn't bite hard, doesn't break the skin, but it's annoying and probably has prevented her being adopted so far. She does stop when I cry out, but she also gets a little scared. Watching her tail isn't helpful in this case (I've been through a lot of cats by this point and know the usual warning signs).

I was wondering if making my hands taste really bad would help teach her to express herself differently.

It's probably important that there's not an odor (to avoid tipping her off pre-nibble), so citrus or mint won't work well. I was considering bitter apple, but a) does it have a scent, and b) will it likely irritate my sensitive skin?

Is there something else from around the house I could use?

Also, other non-traumatic suggestions for training her not to bite are welcome.

She's awesome, really, but her extreme friendliness lulls potential adopters into a false sense of familiarity, and then the toothy self-expression begins.

Here are pictures.
posted by amtho to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The problem with putting something that tastes bad on your hands is that you will wind up tasting it. If I touch something even in the same zip code as bitter apple and then put my fingers near my mouth (which happens more often than you think), it's awful. And it's hard to get out.

Have you tried a spray bottle?
posted by mkultra at 11:35 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

They make a bitter liquid to deter (human) nail biters. You can probably find this at a larger drugstore.

The problem is it only has a taste when you really get your saliva on it. If this kitty isn't making a sandwich of your hand, I'm not sure a quick toothy gnaw or two would really do it.
posted by fontophilic at 11:39 AM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks mkultra. My hands are usually full of cat when this happens -- brushing her, playing with her, clipping her claws -- so the spray bottle wouldn't be convenient. On the plus side, I wouldn't necessarily have to have bad-tasting-substance on my hands all the time.
posted by amtho at 11:40 AM on June 28, 2013

They make a bitter liquid to deter (human) nail biters.

This stuff tastes like earwax, and just about every animal I've ever known thinks that earwax is delicious candy. Worth a try, I suppose, but I wouldn't expect it to be effective.

I wonder if Bitrex spray would work here, or if it would just make you miserable.
posted by phunniemee at 11:51 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is probably a form of play aggression, which can be redirected to appropriate items (Google books preview of Cat Vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, but this section is specifically on cats playing with people).

The author suggests redirecting the play to something else, ideally on a string or pole so you don't have a small toy in your hands, and taking time to play a couple times a day like this. You can then use positive reinforcement with treats to support not play biting your hands. But if play time and treats don't work, you can escalate to a spray bottle or compressed air, to be used to startle the cat and break the pattern. The author notes you shouldn't spray the cat in the face, and it's best to keep the spray bottle out of sight, so your cat thinks it's an "act of god," and not punishment. From personal experience, this makes sense, as our cats would equate spray bottles in our hands as a reason to run off, and that wasn't really our goal.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:52 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jackson Galaxy has good information.
posted by NoraCharles at 11:54 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure it's not play aggression - we don't get our hands near her when playing. It does happen rarely when she's being petted (as in the Jackson Galaxy link, although he makes good points), but mainly it's her way of saying "don't mess with me" randomly, or "hey, you surprised me!" or "NO! Not want!" when we need to pick her up for some reason (usually she loves being picked up).

Again, if anyone needs a cat in my area, she's really awesome :) Just look at the pictures.
posted by amtho at 12:03 PM on June 28, 2013

I have a cat with this bitey tendency, and I've had a surprising degree of success training her out of it, by making biting mildly but consistently unpleasant for her. This is how: when she bites, instead of pulling away, I push into her mouth a bit, or press her nose, or squeeze her lip (GENTLY: never enough to hurt or scare her), so she pulls away or spits me out. She very quickly figured out that biting doesn't produce the result she expected, so she quit doing it. She'll still put her mouth on me when she wants me to stop petting her, but she doesn't bite down at all anymore, because she's learned that biting human fingers feels weird.
posted by Corvid at 12:08 PM on June 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

I feel like bitter apple has a smell - I know my dogs sniff the ottoman after I spray it on there. (we have a licking problem.)

Her biting isn't related to not being able to see out of the one side, right? I'm sure you make her aware that you're there? She looks very sweet - I hope she finds a home!
posted by needlegrrl at 12:08 PM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: I try not to surprise her too much, but I think it does happen sometimes. Mainly it's just her asserting her personal space, though. Today it was claw trimming. Sometimes it's the vet. Sometimes it's "leave me alone". Sometimes it's "don't want to get off the clean laundry". She wants to be the boss.
posted by amtho at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2013

Best answer: Our cat also has this tendency, particularly when she gets overexcited when I'm brushing her, and I've taught her not to bite me simply by saying "no" in a stern voice and walking away. Now if she gets overexcited, she gets up and moves away from me about two feet.
posted by LN at 1:14 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think consistent messaging works better than tasting bad once in a blue moon. Just be consistent about (pretending to be) being angry. It doesn't need to be scary, but signal strong disapproval immediately, each and every time. Cats might not seek approval the way that dogs do, but they do learn from it. Whatever you do, consistency is vital.
posted by anonymisc at 1:34 PM on June 28, 2013

Best answer: My partner had a lot of success training one of our cats using similar techniques to those Corvid mentioned - gently pushing into the cat's mouth when it tried to bite, until kitty gagged a little and essentially spit the finger back out.

If you're still looking for something bitter, Grannick's Bitter Apple is what I used when I had ferrets, to discourage them from biting my ankles.
posted by Talullah at 2:19 PM on June 28, 2013

While not something to put on your hands, I have had a great deal of success by "crying" when my one year old rescue cat would bite me. He seemed to have a greater aversion to the crying than he did a stern "no." Also, in our case a human sounding cry seemed to be less effective and something that sounded more akin to a puppy whining.
posted by emmysue01 at 3:53 PM on June 28, 2013

If you're planning on putting this on your hands while you're petting her normally it will get on her fur and punish her for good (petting) interactions, too.
posted by anaelith at 3:54 PM on June 28, 2013

Best answer: My orangie, Dr. Steve, gets bitey when he's overstimulated when being petted. He bites, then when you quit, he puts out his paw (claws extended) to pull your hand back. Although he never breaks the skin, neither behavior is pleasant to deal with.

I'm a 'NO' and walk away person, and that's what I tell the grandkids. GKs won't stop, and the behavior intensifies. With me, Dr. Steve, takes his time-out till he's relaxed again, then comes and rubs on me for more pats. Over time, I've come to know what his tolerance for stimulation is.

Some cats just gotta have a time-out to get their brains together.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:40 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Similar to emmysue01, I hissed at kitty cat when she bit. No idea where I read it but I believe the idea was similar to yelping when a puppy bites you in play. It worked -- she now walks away once she's had enough.
posted by bluesapphires at 5:34 PM on June 28, 2013

Is kitty de-clawed?
posted by Schielisque at 5:39 PM on June 28, 2013

My cat still does this occasionally, but it has decreased dramatically since saying a loud NO and kicking him off the bed/couch/lap he's on (not kicking with feet, I just mean picking him up and putting him away from people). But, you have to do it every time for the cat to learn.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:58 PM on June 28, 2013

Response by poster: Kitty has all claws.
posted by amtho at 6:52 PM on June 28, 2013

I would never deliberately kick a cat, but I will say that the evil Siamese who jumped on me with all claws extended while I was sound asleep was fired off the bed and into the wall with a resounding 'thump'!

Kitteh never did that again!
posted by BlueHorse at 8:58 PM on June 28, 2013

We have one formally feral cat that, when pet in the middle of his back long enough will turn and do one of these bites. I NEVER get bitten because I know the signs that he is about to do this. My wife ALWAYS get bit because she's, evidently, not as smart as I am.

You've already identified the stimulus that cause her to bite...learn the signs and don't push the kitty to the point that she bites...
posted by HuronBob at 3:38 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, but never brushing her isn't an option -- she has thick fur that gives her trouble if she grooms it all herself. Also, not trimming her claws is similarly not going to be good for her. And she really appreciates closeness with people, too. Also banning visitors isn't good for the adoption prospects.

I'll try to become smarter, just in case that helps.
posted by amtho at 9:52 AM on June 29, 2013

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