Cat Whisperers, Assemble
April 4, 2022 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Our rescue cat has come so far since we first got him, but he's a feline who's inclined to swat and bite. In under a month, he's self-transitioned from "I have murderous intent and will draw blood if you get anywhere in my vicinity!" to "If you're doing something I don't like, I will lightly swat and bite but mostly not draw blood." And I'm wondering the best tactic on my end to help him stop this behavior. Does an adult cat ever fully transition out of such behavior?

So this little boy is a weird mass of contradictions -- he can be fully petted, all over, while he's eating or walking. Once he sits down, he's extremely specific about which parts you can touch (forehead always, cheeks & chin sometimes, and nowhere else). And he's got a million other rules which we're learning. But when we violate a rule, or he's just generally not interested in our company in that moment, he will now make a gentle attempt at a swat and/or bite. I usually just walk away from him in that moment, without saying or doing anything. Should I say "No"? Should I be doing something else?

What's the best way to train an adult cat that I will respect his boundaries and he doesn't have to swat or bite to get me to do it?
posted by BlahLaLa to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I had a Siamese cat who had habits similar to ones you described. I just learned to recognize her preferences and her early warning signs. I was never able to change her behavior (in truth, I didn't try very hard). Once she trained me on how she liked to be petted, we got along great.
posted by akk2014 at 9:14 AM on April 4, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: What you're doing sounds great! Cat says no in an appropriate way, you stop. You want the cat to keep saying no in gentle ways, and you can watch for other signs that your cat has had enough (tail, posture change) and learn to stop before the swatting.

If your kitty is actually hurting you, you can add a meow like a wounded kitten so he knows that's too much, but it sounds like you're on a good path, especially in just a month!
posted by momus_window at 9:26 AM on April 4, 2022 [12 favorites]

One of mine first licks my hand, then bites gently if I don't stop whatever I'm doing that she disapproves of. She's done this as long as I've had her, and she's trained me quite well with this behavior.

I think your cat is adapting very well! They get to have preferences and to say no just as we do -- just not violently. That's what your cat is doing, and they may always do it, and that's perfectly okay. All you have to do is notice the warning sign and stop.
posted by humbug at 9:47 AM on April 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

We call this lap dancer rules: the cat can touch you, but you cannot touch the cat. If you’re comfortable with a little risk you can try to keep going a little when the signals start, but it’s hard to change the rules of engagement. Some cats may respond positively to treats as an extra reward, but if they want contact to stop you’d best stop.
posted by fedward at 10:00 AM on April 4, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Not in my experience. Going from murder cat mode to irritated cat mode is a huge improvement, congrats!

One of our cats just doesn't fully understand that human skin is fragile and is not that careful with their claws. They are also the most picky about how and when they like to be petted and will do what your cat does. The other human in the household has decided that such chomps are mostly affectionate. I am not convinced.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:01 AM on April 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh! And I usually make a high pitched squeal, like an unhappy kitten, when swiped or chomped. Not sure it prevents behavior, but I _feel_ better for expressing my indignation.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:03 AM on April 4, 2022 [6 favorites]

Some cats respond to that squeal very well! One of ours can sometimes go overboard while playing; if he scratches or bites us, we squeal and then he'll freeze immediately, and then apologize by giving a little lick.
So: yes, try the squeal.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:06 AM on April 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

We call this lap dancer rules: the cat can touch you, but you cannot touch the cat.

Seconded. Kruimel (feral rescue, f, now 2.5y old and 1.5y with us) having discovered scritches, will ask for them but still not allow you to start; I have to hold out my hand, back of the hand outward so that she can sniff and rub it. Only after that, scritches are fine. Especially neck scritches.
posted by Stoneshop at 11:28 AM on April 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In under a month, he's self-transitioned from "I have murderous intent and will draw blood if you get anywhere in my vicinity!" to "If you're doing something I don't like, I will lightly swat and bite but mostly not draw blood."

If it's been under a month to get to this point, you're doing very well. My cat Zach was like this and it took a couple years for him to chill out.

Sounds like you're doing everything right, it is just going to take more time. And yes, Zach did finally chill out of it - he still had his fussy moments and places he didn't like being pet at any given moment (and FYI, all cats are "a mass of contradictions" because cats), but he also had more cuddly moments.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on April 4, 2022 [9 favorites]

Yep to all this. I’ll add that as I learned how my cat communicated, and she learned that I would listen to her, she used her teeth and claws less and was more interested in interactions that were previously Forbidden, like belly rubs, and it’s just more peaceful for everyone.
posted by jameaterblues at 12:24 PM on April 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

First, you can't train your cat -- you are his employee, so he trains you :)

But seriously, I agree with the above. Keep respecting your cats signals, and back off when he signals that he doesn't like something.

I have known a lot of cats, and while some still gradually move out of this phase, some will always be a bit reactive in this way, and you will just have to learn to observe and interpret their body language. Pay attention to whether your cat has sensitive spots, and if so, possibly investigate whether there is a medical issue. Cats can be snappier when they in pain. At the rescue where I volunteer, I have seen quite a few swatty / bitey cats who did total 180s and became confident love bugs once their pain issues were resolved. (Doesn't seem super likely in your case since you have already had good progress, but good to mention in general.)

If it is not pain, but "just" a matter of building trust, it might be a months- or years-long process, so just be patient.
posted by ktkt at 9:16 PM on April 4, 2022

When the cat is inside, possibly nail covers.

You'll be able to ignore the jerky behavior. When the cat realizes it's ineffective, he may forget it as a habit, then alternate with more positive behaviors. Saying 'no' or correction may not even be necessary. Just ignore.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:47 PM on April 4, 2022

You are doing it exactly right, what is the question? He's made incredible progress. Removing yourself from the situation when he swats is the best thing to do. Keep on observing him and avoid the situations that might lead to him swatting/biting.
posted by RajahKing at 8:10 AM on April 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Many well adjusted cats will swat or gently bite (teeth on skin without much pressure) if you do something they dislike - it’s just their way of saying hey, stop that. It’s fine to walk away, but if you’re sitting, it’s also fine to stay where you are and just stop petting the cat.

I think the yelping to train cats out of that is more a thing for when you’re playing and they inadvertently hurt you, so you can communicate to them that it hurts. If the cat is swiping at you in order to tell that they don’t like what you’re doing, there’s already been successful communication about what’s going on.
posted by maleficent at 4:56 PM on April 5, 2022

Response by poster: These are all great answers. Thank you for taking the time to assist. New Cat continues to be weird. Yesterday Mr. Blah got a swipe...and then later that day, a sweet little lick on his arm. CATS!

Also, LOL nail covers?!? I cannot imagine the process of getting them on him. There would be a lot of blood spilled. (Mine.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:39 AM on April 6, 2022

Response by poster: Just for fun I'm linking to the video the shelter we adopted from made about our little cat! He continues to be touchy and extremely specific about his desires, which he enforces with tooth and claw. But he also sleeps on our bed, is super in love with Mr. Blah, and has adapted to us also having adopted 2 charming kittens. Basically he is the grumpy old man of the household, but when I think about the fact that he was in the shelter for 11 months before we adopted him -- and that he'd already been adopted + returned twice -- I feel really good about providing a forever home for him.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:44 PM on October 4, 2022

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