Train the cats, train the kids?
June 20, 2016 3:46 PM   Subscribe

I have inherited two kittens (now almost a year old). One of them is continually scratching my elementary-aged kids. I have had no luck training the kids in cat body language, because it seems to go from cuddly-and-purring to face-scratching instantly.

I (a veteran cat-owner) can usually avoid getting scratched, but I've been scratched often enough to believe the kids when they say there's very little indication the cat is moving from happy to happy-but-also-bloodthirsty. The cat-unlike any other I've had in decades of cat-owning- just seems to think people are prey, and/or that everyone will be happy with a claw up the nose. (Yes, tonight's bloodbath was purring cat to claws hooked into kid upper-lip and nose.) I mostly avoid getting scratched by just not trusting the cat and not letting it anywhere near my face. But I can't get my kids to follow that rule. They are always convinced that this time the cat won't scratch them. For Reasons it is unlikely that we would be able to rehome the cat. We obviously won't declaw the cat. I can't figure out how to train my kids other than forbid them to interact with the cat (which isn't really feasible-- I have two kids, and one cat was given to each of them, and I can't give one kid's cat away).

They haven't been to the vet recently, but this has been going on for long enough that I know it's not a pain/illness issue. The cat is clearly enjoying itself both before it scratches, during the scratching, and only looks mildly offended that his humans don't enjoy the face-scratching and biting game. He doesn't stalk us. He is not otherwise aggressive. Each incident lasts a few seconds, then he's fine. Sometimes there is no sign at all that he's getting ready to scratch, and sometimes he very subtly twitches his tail-- not like a normal "about to pounce" kitten/cat, though. (I spent weeks teaching my kids "cat body language" and assuming they just weren't reading him well, until the cat got me with absolutely zero warning, and then I believed them.) This happens a few times a week. He gets along with his brother fine. He does not appear to be stressed out before/during/after/ever. Both were spayed months ago. Both are inside cats.

So... What do I do? Is it possible to train this cat? Or my kids? Help?
posted by instamatic to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
can you put soft paws on them both until they either grow out of it or until the kids can read the cats better? might be a good stop-gap.
posted by koroshiya at 3:49 PM on June 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

Soft Paws for the unpredictable one until the kids figure it out?

Edit: oh hai, jinx!
posted by charmedimsure at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

My cat is an asshole and also thinks humans are prey. I don't have a solution to the biting, but have had some luck with SoftPaws nail caps to keep her from scratching. Our local groomer will put them on for $10, which is a small price to pay not to have to wrestle her myself, given that she only needs them every 6 weeks or so. Protip: choose a bright color you can easily see on the cat's paws/against the fur so you know when you need to replace them. Also you'll see them if the cat loses them around the house. This will put the aggressive cat at a bit of a disadvantage in fights with its sibling, but I'd give it a shot.
posted by katemonster at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh man, get the local groomer to clip the nails. I will NEVER forget how much of a game changer it was when the vet casually offered to clip the daggers of my ... ahem... discerning former Siamese (RIP LOLA FOREVER)....

She brought her behind the closed door to be clipped, and my husband and I looked at one another and braced for screams and sirens. Nothing. It was beautiful. And cheap as hell (way cheaper than regular dog grooming).

There is never any reason to declaw a cat. And I've tried to rehabilitate a cat that was declawed by a previous owner to protect their couches and children and the poor thing had gone... scared and bitey. We tried for four years and it didn't end well.

So Yes x1000 to having the vet just clip their damn claws monthly. Or if you can get them used to you fiddling with their pointy bits, you can go it alone.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:57 PM on June 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Another vote for trimming their nails. Get a decent pair of clippers/scissors that go all the way around the claw.
posted by lazuli at 4:02 PM on June 20, 2016

Some cats need to be taught that human flesh is for loving, not playing.

I'm not sure what you and the kids are actually doing with the cat before he goes beserk, but I'd try to stick to just petting (not even scritches) when the cat is within face-striking distance.

Get some toys that can be used at greater than arms length (feather on a stick, ball on a string types). All "play" should happen via those toys.
posted by sparklemotion at 4:02 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your kitten probably thinks it's play-wrestling, only doesn't realise that humans don't have that protective coat of fur and therefore get hurt a lot more quickly. Cats on the whole see humans as, essentially, weird two-legged hairless cats who are bad at hunting, kittens even more so.

So nthing the softpaws suggestion - also, I think you should get a spray bottle of water and spray him whenever he does it. And if you can keep it consistent, give him a treat every time he plays nicely. Positive reinforcement works!
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 4:04 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Kittens, I am told, learn how to be gentle by playing with other kittens until they cross the line and their playmate squeaks, loud and shrill. That's the signal for "ouch, stop".

I don't know if the fact that these guys are mostly grown will affect the effictiveness of this approach, but I have seen it work very well with kittens and humans.

Kitten bites hand too hard, human makes a sound like "YEEEEEEP!", often kitten will instantly disengage.

You can try playing with the kitties, gently, to kind of tempt them a little, while you have this response ready. It might help communicate that you guys are not indestructible.

If you try this (and what have you got to lose), please let me know how well it works. People ask this occasionally and I always recommend this approach; I know it works with young kittens, but I'm very interested in how well it will work with one-year-olds.
posted by amtho at 4:09 PM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wasn't clear about this: the "YEEEEEEP" sound should be as high-pitched as you can make it, like a kitten would make (although you probably can't get as high as kitten, since they're tiny and have very high voices).
posted by amtho at 4:19 PM on June 20, 2016

I've had good luck getting my kitten to not do this by immediately putting her down, walking away, and ending the interaction as soon as it happens. I've never deliberately don't a high pitched YEEEEP!, but I have definitely made whatever noises felt appropriate at the time. She's become much more soft-paw after a month or so of this.

My partner doesn't do this and instead endures the scratch, and she still scratches him a lot.
posted by Sara C. at 4:22 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Please keep the answers coming!

The soft claws tips are winging their way to my house as we speak! If we can't get them on ourselves, I'll see if I can find a groomer to do it. With respect to other suggestions/questions:
- in general, my kids aren't playing/roughhousing when the cat scratches (that I'd understand!). They are usually just calmly petting, and cat is calmly being petted, then pow!
- the kids won't let me squirt him with water, because they have watched cat whisperer YouTube videos about how you should only use positive training methods
- they do, however, immediately put the cat down/dump the cat off their lap and make high pitched sounds, because OUCH
- the cats haven't fought nearly as much as they used to since getting neutered, and are fairly evenly matched, so I'm not too worried about that
- I wonder if maybe they aren't getting enough playtime? But he's not being playful before biting, just sitting calmly (with a possible tail twitch).
posted by instamatic at 4:43 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

two people should be able to get the soft paws on no problem. be speedy with putting them on once the glue has been put in the claw cap tho, otherwise it doesn't adhere as well.

if two of you can't get it done reasonably, check to see if your vet will do it. for $25 mine will clip and cap my kitteh's sharp and pointies.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:47 PM on June 20, 2016

I can't figure out how to train my kids other than forbid them to interact with the cat (which isn't really feasible-- I have two kids, and one cat was given to each of them, and I can't give one kid's cat away).

Does the non-scratching cat show any preference for either child? Honestly, it's probably not a good idea to try to assign 'mine vs yours' status to a pet, especially a cat - cats should always be 'ours' in a multi-person household, since you have no real control over who the cat is going to favor. I suppose that ship has sailed, but, maybe you can use this to teach them about how different animals have different needs?

- in general, my kids aren't playing/roughhousing when the cat scratches (that I'd understand!). They are usually just calmly petting, and cat is calmly being petted, then pow

What part of the body are they petting? If you're absolutely sure it's not a pain issue (or something that some kitty prozac would help with), then it may just be overstimulation. They should avoid full-body petting, only pet the cat's head, and only if the cat comes to them wanting to be petted.

My current cat can get overstimulated very easily, and she's the quietest cat I've ever had. Like, most every night when I go to bed, she'll jump up and sit on my chest and purr and want to be petted. And then after a certain amount of time, she'll be done with snuggle time, but seems to have no idea how to just exit the situation gracefully, so she would just lie there getting more and more tense and then end up lashing out. But I'm so used to her now, I know her warning signs, how the purring starts to taper off and, and how she starts to get dangerously still, and so when that silence starts I just slowly move my hands out of the danger zone and start to roll over to my side, and it's like the movement breaks her out of a hypnotic state, and she suddenly realizes she can go away.

- I wonder if maybe they aren't getting enough playtime? But he's not being playful before biting, just sitting calmly (with a possible tail twitch).

If he's a quiet cat, then I think you have to learn to treat as giant red flags things that would be inconsequential from a louder cat, so, yeah, the tail twitch is probably a warning. I think you should institute a rule that the kids are not allowed to pet the cat until after they've made sure he's played out, using some kind of toy that keeps them at a safe distance. Also, have you tried Feliway? Might help to mellow things out to have that mother-cat-pheremone floating around the house.
posted by oh yeah! at 6:53 PM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you have trouble with the soft paws, I highly recommend the Klaw Kontrol Bag (and really it's great for when you have to pill the little suckers, or do anything they are super happy about).

Nthing the high pitched sound reaction and dumping them out/stopping all attention. They will get that, but they are babies, and they are playing too rough. I'm glad you're working with the little suckers. My cat will STILL nip at 13 if she gets over-stimulated, so you know, cats.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:00 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

More info on overstimulation and aggression. You may need to train the kids not to pet the cat so much at once, or to start recognizing much more subtle cat body language (like skin twitching).
posted by lazuli at 7:08 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've used soft paws before, shouldn't be too difficult with two people. The first time may be the hardest because you have to do all 10 claws, but then it's just one or two at a time as the old ones fall off. (Also, the glue things always run out/dry up before you run out of the claw tips. It's like the hot dogs vs hot dog buns math.)
posted by oh yeah! at 7:16 PM on June 20, 2016

Advice from our family vet years ago on loving an easily over-stimulated cat has never failed me: "just pet the head." Like people, some cats just aren't touchy-feely. A few skritches on the noggin and maybe some chin rubs and that may be all your kitty can handle.
posted by Otter_Handler at 5:41 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

We had a cat that would just randomly attack, no warning. Never learnt how to predict it, so just didn't pat her as much. Something that was useful, our parents taught us to stop moving instead of pulling back when attacked. This reduced the scratches to pin pricks.
posted by kjs4 at 6:39 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your cats might have a lot of energy. Your kids want to interact with the cats. Cats need 15-20 minutes of play time every day. (Just like dogs need daily walks for fitness, cats need a fitness regimine too. That fitness regimine is play time.) Have your kids interact with the cats on the cats' terms which is play time. Playing for cats is chasing a string, ball on a string tied to a stick, laser pointer, feather on a string tied to a stick, feather on a stick. It might take $50-100 to finds toys that your cats like. Play time for the cats doesn't need to be 15-20 straight minutes. It could be 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon. Just like humans, cats can get bored with a toy after a few weeks so your cat toy chest needs to be rotated through. Immediately after playing, it wouldn't be a bad idea to reward the cat with a kernel/nugget/kibble of food. Many cats are focused on food. When the 15 inutes is up, have a kibble at the ready from your pocket. It might take about 1-2 weeks of 15 minutes/day before you see an improvement in the cats' behavior.

If your cats attack you while you walk past, that a huge sign that they've got a lot of pentup energy that needs to be released. The attacks are an energy release. When cats play, they're releasing energy but in an appropriate manner. There isn't very much energy remaining for attacks when they're getting 15-20 minutes of play each day.

Many cats don't like interacting with humans on human terms -- lots of petting and head/ear/chin scratching and holding. Cats like a few seconds of petting or holding but then it needs to stop.
posted by dlwr300 at 7:28 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

My cat decided that she must always use her claws for all things paw-y. So I keep her front nails clipped. This is what it looks like. These are not freshly clipped. They are nice and dull. So it will minimize the pain and scratches, but you still need to send the "don't bug the cat, here's what's appropriate for cats" instructions for the kids.
posted by Stewriffic at 1:03 PM on June 21, 2016

Oh, yeah, oh yeah! I definitely agree that having specific pet owners is a terrible idea. Unfortunately, they decided in the car on the way home from picking up the cats, and nothing I've said has been able to prevent it. (My nightmare: one cat escapes and gets hit by a car, then for the next fifteen years, there is sadness in our house.) We are now almost a year into cat ownership, so even if me being the heavy would have worked last summer, it won't work now.

The cats are active (play fighting with each other, running around the house, then sleeping for 6 hours), and will occasionally pounce as you walk by. Scratchy cat doesn't do the twitch-scrunch-pounce movement most of the time before he attacks-- you have to look for much more subtle cues, like eyes starting to slit and the very tiniest tip of the tail twitching the tiniest tiniest bit. (And sometimes, not even that.) He doesn't seem angry, he doesn't seem "done being scratched," he doesn't seem to be trying to play, he mostly just seems like "what? You don't like being scratched and bitten on my whim? People are so weird!" Slightly offended that we don't like blood? Rather like a Southern grandma being told she's cooking for a vegan.
posted by instamatic at 5:23 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I trained my cat to "softpaw" when we play by saying "ouch" pretty loudly and stopping for several minutes.

Re: the unpredictability, he might be a more sensitive cat than most are. My cat gets overstimulated quickly by things which sooth other cats, petting down the body in particular. Over time I've been able to pick up on the tail twitches which indicate he's starting to get overstimulated and removed or stilled my hand until he calmed down. He also gets overstimulated by being brushed. Since I started tracking his tail when petting him (he was already 100% non-hurty when we played) the incidences of me being bitten have gone down completely. Your cat might be similarly sensitive to something which doesn't bother other cats - watch the tail and experiment. Little twitches are a sign he's starting to get overstimulated/annoyed and a good time to stop whatever you're doing. Keep any retreats slow and smooth; a jerky movement away might trigger a prey response in an already stimulated cat.

I found small, round movements calm him down, fwiw, while long full body ones rile him up, and now I can pet, snuggle, and manhandle him all I want until he tells me to stop.
posted by Deoridhe at 7:07 PM on June 23, 2016

We trimmed nails and glued on SoftPaws this morning while the kids were in school. Scratchy cat purred and purred through the whole process. (Brother cat only got trimmed, and was not nearly as happy about it, but at least put up with the impromptu cat spa.) Fingers crossed that this solves the problem!
posted by instamatic at 9:48 AM on June 24, 2016

Four days later: SoftPaws have come off both thumbs and one middle claw.

Scratchy cat is now noticeably more cuddly/attention seeking, and hasn't tried to scratch people, as far as I know.

However, this morning I was sitting on the floor with my kids, and SC pushed his way onto my lap, started purring like a maniac, and head-butted me until I scratched his head ("Oh, how cute!") and then gave me a love bite on my chin. ("Hey! Ow! Get off!") SC then wandered back by a few minutes later, pushed his way onto my lap, head butted me until I scratched his head and then bit me on my neck hard enough to break the skin (while still purring like crazy). I had to hold his head/jaws to detach him and get his teeth out of my neck without tearing my skin, yelled OUCH, and pushed him out of my lap (STILL PURRING LIKE CRAZY). Did I mention crazy?

This wasn't stress-purring-- he was clearly enjoying himself, and would have hopped back up on my lap for more scritches if I'd let him. It's more like...he thought I smelled delicious enough to eat? He always sniffs me first, and is more likely to bite if I've recently used mint scented shampoo, though this time I'd just come back from swimming laps and smelled like chlorine. At least bites are easier to detangle from than full-on cat scratching?

I've had cats for decades, and I've never had one who draws blood just for the hell of it.
posted by instamatic at 7:23 AM on June 28, 2016

Wow. Could the head-butting have been scent-marking rather than affection-seeking? Some form of heightened territorialism and redirected aggression? I think you might need to get them on some kind of mood stabilizer drug for a bit.

What a sucky situation, so sorry.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:46 AM on June 28, 2016

Huh, I'll have to check into the idea of scent marking! I just googled scnt marking behavior just now, and came across this:
Why does your cat take a small bite on your arm or cheek and hold on for a few seconds?
Some cats, when they are very happy and feeling extremely affectionate toward the Big Unfurry Cat, will gently take a piece of human skin between their teeth and hold it for a few seconds. Think of it as the feline equivalent of kissing
That's basically what he was doing the first time, and matches with him purring and being affectionate. But the second time, he definitely bit harder (though held still and let me detangle him carefully by holding his jaw rather than attacking). It's like he can't manage cat social cues appropriately. Purr purr scratch bite purr.

I guess it's time to call the vet. Bummer.
posted by instamatic at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2016

We had a cat a lot like this when I was a kid, and unfortunately the solution was just that the cat didn't like being pet. In fact, one of my cats right now is like this (though he is shy and won't under any circumstances approach people for skritches), and, yeah, we just... don't try to pet him. Both cats in these anecdotes did like other types of play, for instance chasing a laser pointer or pouncing on a feather or a ribbon tied to a stick.
posted by Sara C. at 2:58 PM on June 28, 2016

« Older Cocktails in Latin American Literature?   |   When grilling meat - how do you measure the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.