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A beautiful velvet-soft cat sits blinking, sleepy-eyed on the sofa. Her coat is so invitingly sateen and her look so relaxed that you can’t help but reach out and stroke her. But ten seconds later, out of the blue, she undergoes a personality change and lashes out, badly scratching your hand.
At some point in our lives we’ve all met a cat like this. It might be our own cat or a friend’s, but the overwhelming urge to stroke and fuss a cute cat is repaid by a vicious rake of claws that draws blood. Or it might be your cat bunts against your legs, asking for a game, only to sink her teeth into your ankles when she gets over-excited.
As a cat lover, this leaves you with a dilemma. You want to interact with the cat but don’t trust her to behave and not draw blood. What can you do to stop your cat biting and scratching during playtime and encourage something more appropriate?
You can’t make a cat do anything, and this includes relax. With cats you have to accept that less is more and you must back off to keep the peace. The first lesson in retraining an over-reactive cat is to know that you have to back off when you see signs she’s becoming over-aroused during petting or play.
These signals include:
- Fidgeting tail
- Leaning away from you
- Flattening the ears against the head
- Drawing the lips back
- Growling or hissing
- Running away
See any of these and know that kitty is respectfully telling you to stop or she won’t be responsible for the consequences. If you were another cat you’d recognise these as ‘distancing signals’ and know this was a step through moment to back away or choose to engage in a full scale fight.
There is nothing to be gained by forcing the cat to accept your attentions because this will only end in tears. . . yours! Bear in mind the cat isn’t asking you to stop, she’s telling you.
Know Your Cat
Now you know the warning signs, work out how long you can play with the cat before she loses her cool. Play or pet the cat but always stop slightly before her fuse is lit. This helps avoid a cascade of fight-or-flight hormones which prime her up like an unexploded bomb just waiting to detonate. This means eventually she’s more likely to associate petting with pleasure than annoyance.
Now for the cunning part. You’re going to teach the cat to play nicely or enjoy petting, by associating your attention with an ultra-tasty treat.
If you don’t fancy your fingers chances close to the cat, then put the treat on a spoon and offer it to her at a distance. This might be something she adores such as tuna or ham. Or, you might wait until just before her next mealtime so she’s hungry and then offer her usual cat food on the spoon.
Start to stroke her and offer out that must-have snack on a spoon. Take it in baby steps so that each session stops before she becomes bad mannered. Gradually, she’ll begin to associate the game or petting with a good thing, and rein in her bad temper. You can use a similar technique to show her that being combed and brushed is a good thing to have happen.
However, always keep yourself safe. If you have one of those unpredictable cats that can be content on your knee one second and lash out the next, take special care. Learn to be alert for that tell-tale tail flick and then stand up, tipping the cat off your knee rather than put your hands at risk of a savaging.
Some cats get so caught up by the thrill of the chase that your hand becomes a mouse and she moves in for the kill. If it’s a case of the cat being genuinely over-excited, then avoid using your hand in play. Instead, use a wing-on-a-string type toy so that the cat can pounce and do the death-kick to her heart’s desire.
The same goes for the cat that likes to ambush your ankles as you walk along. The chances are she takes your cries of pain for encouragement, in the same way a distressed mouse squeals. Try to be prepared and keep a squeaky toy in your pocket so that you can distract her with the noise and toss it to a safe distance, hence saving your ankles.
And finally, avoid punishing the cat. Whilst it might be tempting to shout or smack the cat, this only increases her anxiety and makes matters worse. Rather than learn to accept your loving touch, she will have her fears confirmed that petting leads to pain, and she’ll become more short-tempered not less.
When all else fails know that we love cats for their independence, and cats will be cats, claws and all.
Do you have a cat that tends to play rough? We’d love to hear if these tips to stop your cat biting and scratching during playtime work for you, or anything else you’ve tried with success.
Bryn Nowell says
Incredibly helpful post! I loved your use of visuals so much I wound up pinning some images too! You’re right, positive reinforcement and respecting boundaries will help all parties enjoy their time together without any sharp nails being used.
Jenna Hughson says
Great tips! My one girl Kiki gets a little too excited and bites a wee bit when we play, so thanks for this!
Sweet Purrfections says
I’m lucky I haven’t had a reactive cat. These are great tips.
Meet Dash Kitten (@DashKitten) says
We don’t have this, we have some fear hissing when Angus our visitor gets over excited or stimulated. But, even he is learning manners from the example set by our cats, he seems to watch them for signals what to do.
Luckily our kittens have not been bad about this! I will keep this info in mind if we ever have this problem
Great tips. I’m blown away at how some folks will use their own body parts as “toys” for their cats. There are so many other fun ways to play. Thanks for this.
My cats can play pretty rough sometimes. Typically, they are gentle when playing with a human, but they can get carried away. Whenever one of my cats gets too excited and bites or scratches me, I say “ouch” and I stop the game. Since I’ve had my cats since they were very young, they immediately let go when I say ouch. I like to spend a lot of time handling my kitties while they are really young so that they are used to being touched and held. Even with this training, it is still very important to pay attention to the communication from the cat. They are allowed to not want to be touched at the moment.
We don’t have much time for loving before the crazy kicks in. The idea of retraining is a fabulous idea – we will definitely work on that. Thanks!
Amber Ketchum says
Great tips! My cat, Trout, is terrible about biting when we play 🙁
Beth (@dailydogtag) says
Thankfully we have a very mellow cat who doesn’t bite or scratch normally. I tend to just admire without touching cats that I don’t know because I never really knew the signals of a stressed cat. This is helpful!
Jasmine | About Pet Rats says
Excellent tips! I used to pet sit a cat that would go for my ankles resulting in serious scratching and biting. Wish I’d read your post years ago. Fortunately, since then all the kitties with whom I’ve interacted have been super sweet. It does help tremendously, as you mentioned, to know the signs of impending aggression.
Thanks for writing and sharing such a wonderful post.
Rebecca at MattieDog says
Great tips – we often kitty sit our neighbor’s cat and she’s a dream! We forget that all kitties are not like her – so these are great for us as they are adding a new little furry kitty to their family! Thanks!
Cats are good at teaching humans how to treat them and pay attention to their body language. We could take a lesson from that!
Tenacious Little Terrier says
Great tips. Dogs get overstimulated too but it seems like cats have a shorter fuse.
Cathy Armato says
I like your suggestion to offer a treat on a spoon vs. your hand if aren’t sure you won’t get scratched. Those feather on a stick toys are great, & much safer!
Thanks for the great tips. The biggest problem is people not reading the signs. My cats never lashed out for no reason (okay except for one!), they always gave sufficient warning when they’d had enough. If the humans didn’t listen what do they think is going to happen!!
Lola The Rescued Cat says
When Mommy sees Lexy’s tail twitching she knows she better watch out and let her have her space.
The Swiss Cats says
Those are all great tips ! Claire is born with cats, and she’s good at understanding when she has to stop and leave us. Purrs
Kimberly Morris Gauthier says
Cosmo bites me when he gets frustrated or over excited. I know when it’s coming and it cracks me up; it’s never hard, just a warning, kind of like a slap in the hand. When he bites me, then I stop petting him or playing with him. What’s funny is that he’ll demand a petting session and bite me when I don’t comply. If I ignore him, he’ll calm down and then we can start again.
These are really great tips. Being able to read cat behavior has saved Tracey and me many times during our years of volunteering. 🙂
Sometimes Cats Herd You says
Pierre goes directly from zero to overstimulated. The had peep has kind of resigned herself to it at times, but she can usually manage not to set him off.
Binga easily gets overstimulated! My human can read her like a book – she should since she’s been living with her for over 15-1/2 years.