Can we train our 7 month old cat to not bite us?
October 26, 2020 10:42 PM   Subscribe

Feral kitten we got when he was very young, whom we raised with lots of love and tenderness, went from being super sweet for the first month or two (slept every night in our arms, purred a lot, only bit us 10% of the time) to 90% biting us and 10% sweet/purring, and now only sleeps under our bed. He is however extremely food-motivated so I was wondering if there was a way to train the biting out of him?

We thought after he was neutered his aggression would go away, but if anything it's gotten worse. We followed all the kitten rules regarding not using hands as toys, swapping in toys when he attacked our hands, etc. Much of the biting is play, some is anger, but it's gotten worse as his teeth/claws have gotten bigger, (he's a BIG cat) and when he gets mad at us shooing him away he full on LAUNCHES himself at our arms and ankles, to the point of drawing blood. He also occasionally attempts to bite our noses. We handle it by putting him for ten minutes in the bathroom for "kitty prison" until he calms down, after which he's nice for a while.

Weirdly, he is also very confident and social and usually wants to be around us and other people - never on our laps, but wants to be laying nearby us most of the time. He will often politely tap my foot with his paw when he wants to play, and I try to give him a lot of play time with the wand-toy to tire him out so he won't attack us so much. He also purrs happily about half the time I pick him up and pet him and carry him around the house - provided he's in a good mood. If he's not - he will bite me, HARD. It's hard to know which version of my cat I'm picking up until it's too late.

I have used a LOT of Neosporin. I can't help but feel like we did something wrong and don't know how to remedy it. If training to NOT do something isn't possible, should we just be completely ignoring him until he decides he wants affection? The trouble is that when we ignore him, he bites our feet to get attention/if he's bored! Any advice would be very much appreciated!
posted by egeanin to Pets & Animals (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When I was growing up, we trained our cat by spritzing him with one of those plastic plant sprayer bottles filled with water, which worked for us... but I just googled it and it isn't considered a good method any more.

Here is an article with some advice.
posted by Spacelegoman at 12:00 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wrap him in a towel, trim his claws. Often.
posted by theora55 at 12:07 AM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Still going through this with my cat! What's reduced this problem for us (and not being on your laps sounds like it might be a similar one for your kitty) was stopping picking him up to cuddle him altogether - there was something about the insecurity/loss of control which made him less comfortable about being in laps and more reactive. We also got him a ton of catnip filled kicker toys to gnaw on and kick and made sure there were more hiding places and high up places for him to go and be away from people when he needed to be. Best of luck!!! Seven months is also just a tough age
posted by MarianHalcombe at 2:13 AM on October 27, 2020

Get a second cat.
posted by flabdablet at 4:23 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

If your cat is reacting badly to being picked up sometimes stop picking him up seriously why do you think you have the right to just scoop someone up and suspend them several body lengths above the ground. Especially if after he's told you countless times "no I don't want to be picked up" you still pick him up and then he has to hurt you to express his own bodily autonomy.

Let him decide where he wants to go, when he wants to go.

In our house it's considered a consent violation to pick up a cat who hasn't asked to be picked up.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:48 AM on October 27, 2020 [36 favorites]

My kitty was just like this when he was younger -- it was a real problem. He attacked me and others and several folks advised me to re-home him -- but I knew that, despite his occasional aggression, he was often very loving and sociable. I didn't have the option of getting another cat for him to play with/learn from, so I had to try a different set of tactics. First, I provided lots of play (sounds like you're on it). Second, when he got violent, I tried to be as non-reactive as possible and just walk away. The idea is that any reaction, positive or negative, reinforces the behavior. However, it is admittedly difficult to quietly walk away when a cat's claws are digging into your calves.

Because of that, the most effective tactic turned out to be walking away from interactions BEFORE they got violent. This meant learning his body language, stopping or radically reducing certain kinds of interactions (like pursuing him for snuggle time or picking him up, which always seems to make him a little mad even if he's purring), and shortening petting time. Basically, I was trying to respect his boundaries, stop overstimulating him, and stack up good interaction experiences. I figured that the more good interactions we had, the more relaxed he would be -- and this absolutely bore out in reality. Gradually, I learned to understand the signals he was giving me about how he liked to be petted, when he was getting overstimulated or stressed, and when he was in an aggressive/playful mood (there's a certain witching hour when he just wants to HUNT). For his part, I think that as I learned how to interact with him, he relaxed a lot and let me and others hang out with him for longer periods of time (and even pick him up for short periods of time). My partner had to go through this same learning process when we moved in together; now they have an awesome relationship.

In short -- there is hope! It did take time and effort, but I am now a passable cat mind-reader and my cat is hella happier. Good luck!
posted by ourobouros at 5:12 AM on October 27, 2020 [25 favorites]

Since he seems to actually like you: try going into an overblown pain/hurt response any time he attacks. If you reply to aggression with anger or violence, it's a a fun game to him. Instead, you whine and cry and complain about how much that hurt, maybe get the other humans to ignore the cat and comfort you.

Kind of weird to put on such a show for a pet but it can work.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:25 AM on October 27, 2020 [12 favorites]

It's hard to know which version of my cat I'm picking up until it's too late.

The finger-nose manouevre is generally a pretty reliable way to find out beforehand. If there's a mrrp! with a cheek smooch, you're usually good to go. If not, cat almost certainly has something better to attend to right now.
posted by flabdablet at 5:29 AM on October 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

For kittens I find it helps to think of them as if they were their age in years instead of months. So your boy is 7, and he's starting to get grumpy about being treated like a baby - he's a big boy! He doesn't want to be picked up! Until he does, of course. My cat went through a whole thing like that until he was out of his teens - now he's four actual years old, and he is the cudddliest cat who will allow me to scoop him up whenever I need a snuggle. But it took us time to get there, and I had to show him that I will be respectful of his boundaries when he sets them.

Kittens at that age can be more difficult just because they are still trying to find their groove. They are growing so fast, everything is different, they know that they need to find their place in the world but still aren't quite sure how to. Your job is to be patient and supportive and to learn to communicate with them about wants and needs. Don't get cross with him when he bites you, but yelp and make a fuss to show that he's hurt you. And try to give him gentler ways to communicate with you. He needs to be able to say 'no I don't want this', so you'll have to learn to pay attention to his body language - his tail, his ears, the different kinds of mew he gives, etc.

Talk to him a lot about what you're doing - he won't understand the words but he'll understand the tone you unconsciously put into the words. Cats and their owners develop their own private language to communicate with each other, based on a complicated negotiation between cat and human body and sound language. You will get there.

For now, yes, don't smother him with affection if he isn't asking for it, and make sure that you schedule way more playtime than you think is necessary - he is 7! he needs to run around until he's tired out several times a day! he will exhaust you! Make sure that he has scratching posts and soft things to knead and all the sensory toys so that he can learn to self-regulate that way. And tell him you're proud of him and how big and grown up he is.
posted by Acheman at 5:34 AM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

It is important to have a cat you can pick up to, say, put in a carrier for veterinary care, or to administer medication, even if you wouldn't otherwise pick them up if they don't want that. So I agree with the suggestion from SaltySalticid above, which has generally worked for me with my cats.
posted by miratime at 6:05 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have an old Ask here about this. We eventually figured out two things:

First, triggers. Our kitty is primarily somehow triggered into attack mode if my hand approaches her from the front. So I pet her from the side whenever possible, and reposition her if I need to.

She does prefer not to be picked up, and so we mostly don't, but if I do it's because I need to, and hold her firmly enough that she gets the message that this isn't optional. She does like to ride on Mr. Dash's shoulder, and mine occasionally - her torso over the shoulder (our hand on top to balance her), and her arms balance on chest.

Second, response is key, kitties are paying attention and are seeking attention. Our worst problem is bedtime, where she'll sit on my chest and want to be petted, and then gets riled up into attack mode on her own (because my hands are coming from her "front"). I say "NO" firmly -- not extra loud, but firm -- and withdraw from her. No more attention from me. She withdraws, looks embarrassed, and tends to behave after that. She has learned over time, too, and it seems like she tries to avoid her own triggers, she'll sit on me sideways instead of face-on.
posted by Dashy at 7:04 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

When I was training a young cat, I found that loudly exclaiming the hurt cat sound, kinda like "MAAOW" any time he bit too hard, would always make him stop biting me. Speaking his language seemed to work pretty well.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:28 AM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, speaking cat language is kind of a thing. Another example is hissing like a cat is often more useful than saying "no". But I don't recommend using it for discouraging fighting, more for like for when it jumps on your dinner table or starts to knock over your glass etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:46 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

7-14ish month old cats are the equivalent of feral 12-15-year-old-humans, and they're absolute little shits with no emotional regulation and no chill and a determination to test every single boundary in existence, plus they're in an enormous growth spurt so if they're awake, they're hangry. Teenage cats are the worst.

But it passes. He should regain quite a bit of chill around the time you realize he suddenly looks like a properly-proportioned adult cat and not a child's drawing of a cat with stick legs.

Do work on training and boundaries, but do it with a grain of salt knowing it won't all stick right now but will get wired into his brain and fully click in later.

Play with him tons, but use not-hands. Stick toys, lasers, throw stuffed toys and balls, get him a cat tree if he doesn't have one, and one of those rings with the ball inside for chasing. Increase his exercise in any way possible, but possibly also augment his diet to get him some extra calories and nutrients. That might mean you use a few spoonfuls of wet food several times a day as a reward for a good play/exercise session*, and THEN when he's worn out and his belly's full try having some petting time, but always stop short of overstimulation/biting.

*You can even feed it to him, on a big spoon or little plate, so he has to come to you and interact nicely to get the treat. But if you think he's just learning to be a pest for his noms, you might instead make him follow you to the place you put down the plate and wait for you to give it to him.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 AM on October 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

one of those rings with the ball inside for chasing

Ours are mad for the wide plastic caps that come on milk bottles. They're too big to swallow but they make an apparently totally compelling rattling noise when batted across a wooden floor.

One of the pair is totally deaf and loves to parade around the house carrying her huge white cockatoo flight feather while yowling implausibly loudly and proudly.

And every now and then they do seem to enjoy a session where they jump all over each other and try to eat each other's heads. I'm pretty firmly convinced that the best cat toy is a cat.
posted by flabdablet at 8:35 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Does he have a clean bill of health? This could be intermittent pain, or poor eyesight, something like that?

How do you "shoo him away?" You say he gets mad at you "shooing him away" but what does that mean? Does he approach you for affection or play at weird times?

That he's calmer when he's in the bathroom a while says to me he might not have enough safe spaces to hide in or feel calm in - does he have a box (even a cardboard box) he can retreat to? Any room in the house where you never approach him at all? Someplace he has control over his own self? I think that might help. I think also ignoring him completely is bad - can you talk and look at him without touching? Touching seems to be the thing to negotiate here.
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:57 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

One of our cats went through a period like this around 6 months old (admittedly shorter than what you are experiencing) and still bites from time to time. A few things that helped that folks have mentioned already.

Making the yipping/plaintive yowl "I'm in pain" noise when bit and then immediately withdrawing. Sometimes he seems to forget that we aren't cats and have much thinner skin.

Switching the angle of the approaching hand (front on is the worst, whether at the same level as the eyes/whiskers or coming in from above the head).

Experimenting with chew toys. Our cat also decided to start eating everything around that period, whether edible or not. He's got a really intense chomp and seems to enjoy the sensation of biting on metal and plastic and wood. We found that puppy teething rings seem to be the most effective at giving him the right toothsome texture that he craves and redirecting the chewing and biting impulse away from power cords. I suspect that this also helps reduce the occasions when we get bit. In the absence of a kitten playmate, providing lots of furry fuzzy friends to gnaw on might also help. Again, I've had success with some dog toys. The less bitey cat also likes to carry a small spotted cow toy around, warbling the song of his people.

Good luck! Don't be too hard on yourself. We humans take some time to learn about our cats. And 7 months is definitely a tough age for cat behavior!
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:27 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

This sounds a lot like my cat around that age, and the good news is he’s mellowed out a lot at his ripe old age of 3, but hasn’t completely lost his edge.

I ended up letting mine roam around the basement of my apartment building to get some hunting of gross critters in, it seems to help. I have another friend who takes her cat on walks, otherwise he’s just TOO MUCH.

There’s a lot of great advice in this thread. Making hurt noises never ever worked with my cat (or maybe I do a poor cat impression), but it seems to work for some. Don’t pick him up randomly if he doesn’t like it! I tend to give my own cat pets randomly if I walk by and he accepts the tribute, but a friend’s cat would hiss at me if I did the same thing, forgetting that he wasn’t ok with it. I’m also not sure what you mean by “shooing him away” that makes him go at you, but maybe try a different tactic for that. He might think you’re playing. I would also get the occasional launch at my face, but that was a brief phase.

Also, a cat’s favorite game is murder, never forget. I basically spent a year with scratched up arms. Throwing a blanket or towel or sweatshirt or anything handy over them and wrestling with them is fun and less bloody for you.

Food puzzles might be a good idea for this little guy. You can spend tons of money but also just putting dry food/treats in the cups of an open egg carton was one of my favorites. They need to figure out how to get them out, the cups are just a LITTLE too small for their perfect little faces.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:08 AM on October 27, 2020

Response by poster: These are all excellent suggestions! To answer the question, "shooing away" means putting a barrier between us and the cat (usually a pillow) turning our backs, or blocking the attacks in some way. Often we try to substitute something else to distract him (a balled up sock) but sometimes he just latches on to our ankles and we have to physically pull him off us by dragging him across the floor.

The only reason I pick him up is because half the time he loves it - and it's the only real affection I get from him. He does his sleepy kitty smile and purrs and head-butts and expresses no desire to be put down - like he used to as a little kitten when he enjoyed riding around on our shoulders. But I will stop picking him up if it is what is causing him to feel distant from us.

He does have plenty of places that are just for him - we made sure to give him his own spaces, not just under the bed/couch. He has a kitty tee pee and lots of rooms to hang out in, but most of the time he really wants to be around us -- just not touching.
posted by egeanin at 10:54 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Btw the Walks suggestion is a good one. We have put him in the harness and leash and walked him around the back yard in the past, and he really enjoyed it (unlike other cats I've had who made it clear on the first attempt that it would also be the last attempt.)
posted by egeanin at 10:58 AM on October 27, 2020

If you don't have several cat-fishing/cat dancer toys tucked around the sofa or wherever you hang out in your leisure time, stock up and keep them within reach. He wants to be near and it sounds like he wants interaction, he just doesn't fully have the stimulation management skills to not be a little jerk yet.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:59 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have new advice but I just want to give you some encouragement!

I recently adopted a stray cat that showed up at my parents' house - he's around one year old, and wasn't neutered. He obviously had a rough time (we finally decided to make him an indoor cat after something tried to bite his head off and almost succeeded).

He's a lovable bug but he has some similar behavior problems. The descriptions of frustration aggression in cats is the closest I've found. He would sometimes bite/pounce when he wanted food, wanted attention, or wanted through a door - basically, when some desire was being thwarted, he could easily turn and he is SHARP!

This part of his behavior didn't change significantly after being neutered, but it's calming down a lot now. He hasn't seriously bitten or attacked me in weeks. When he has bitten me, it's been a lot lighter and not broken the skin. I also know how I accidentally provoked him. What seems to have worked the most:

* Learning his body language so I can give him space when he starts to get worked up - when he gets too playful, I can get a toy, and when he seems to be getting agitated, I can just back off.

* Removing myself when he's starting to get worked up. Just backing the fuck off and ignoring him. If he bites or scratches, I leave. Cats don't understand punishment, and if the problem is stress it just stresses them out more.

* Getting rid of environmental stressors/triggers. In his case, when we first adopted him we were keeping him separated from our other cats, which meant that not only was he sometimes shut away from people, which he hated, there were also other cats he knew were on the other side of the door, which he also hated. I recently moved to my own place with no other cats.

He's been calming down a lot! It's not just me avoiding his moods, it honestly all seems to be making him less stressed out in the first place and less likely to react that way. I think he just trusts me more.

The body language thing is big... my old cats had very different boundaries, and I kind of miss that, but it's completely fair for him to be a bit more independent!

It is not hopeless!

And yeah, age is a BIG factor here too.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:42 PM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

The relentless attacks sound very familiar and one of the best tactics I found was throwing a blanket over his head so i could get away. And continue wrestling, or disengage if it stops him. This was definitely a phase and seems long ago now (and honestly I miss the kitten intensity a little bit!)
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:16 PM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also had a stuffed dog toy (so, bigger than a normal cat toy) that I would shove in between me and the claws and try to get him to focus his attention on that (usually I’d hang on to it and wiggle it around like prey, and play tug of war with it). It didn’t always work, but it was part of the arsenal.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:22 PM on October 27, 2020

The only thing that got my kitty to stop this kind of behaviour was to get her a kitty friend. That stopped it immediately and pretty much for good.
posted by bibliotropic at 11:55 PM on October 27, 2020

Does Kitty have safe and secure places to hide, when he wants to?

I had a cat that didn't scratch, but used to beat up and hump a pillow when he got agitated and frustrated - which was all the time. When Mall Cop figured out that he could sit under the living room coffee table, and none of us would bother him? That behavior pretty much stopped. He would come out from under there when he wanted laps and pets and attentions, but if Mall Cop just wanted to be left alone? Under the table he'd go. He could still be by his humans, but also be physically not bothered with.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:48 AM on October 28, 2020

Response by poster: @spinifex23 - yup, he has plenty of places he can go to be left alone (under the couch, under the bed, in his tipi) but he doesn't go there unless something frightens him (the trash-collecting trucks are the only thing that sends him running for cover.)
posted by egeanin at 2:59 PM on October 28, 2020

My sister had a cat who would go from playing to full on biting in seconds. When he bit, I would scruff the back of his neck so he couldn't move until he let go. Then I'd talk to him in a calming voice, telling him if he didn't want to play it was okay but he needed to jump down (bed or couch) or walk away.

Sometimes it took a couple minutes for him to stop trying to bite. Sometimes it was 15 or 30 seconds. Once he understood that biting meant not being able to move until he calmed down, he started jumping down on his own before he felt bitey. It did seem to be him getting to overstimulated. I started watching for the tip of his tail to twitch back and forth quickly and would quit playing with him. It was his early tail warning system. Between us learning his body language and him learning biting was not allowed, it cut down on him getting worked up enough to bite.

I'd also 2nd not carrying him around. If you can't figure out what is setting off, it's safer not to. Maybe it will help him be calmer if he's in control of when to jump up beside you.
posted by stray thoughts at 10:08 PM on October 28, 2020

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