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We adopted a stray kitten (male) which is about a year old. He is pretty energetic and zooms around the house a lot doing usual cat shenanigans. I love playing with him but sometimes the play can get really rough on both sides. I don't really know how to describe this but he goes into the classic "cat about to snatch a bird mode" and stalks me then proceeds to bite and scratch me then I manage to get him off and smack his butt and scratch his belly and leave. He then starts stalking me again, rinse and repeat. I do get scratches on my arms from this play but nothing really concerning.

I've had a male cat before and this seems like something cats just do but I was really wondering if I am being too rough or if I am hurting him or our relationship in any way. He does not get vocal during this, he doesn't hiss nor does his hair prickle up. So I figure it most likely isn't aggressive behavior, rather just rough play. After he gets tired out, everything goes back to normal.

May be a dumb question but what do you guys think ?

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    When I am playing with my cat, I will pay attention to what I call "whisker mode". If her whiskers are folded back against her face, she is in an angry/protective state. If her whiskers are spread forward, she is in a happy/playful state. What I have understood is that as a kitten, they will be more playful, and the constant "stalking" is their expressing this. Since he comes back after you have smacked him, he is just continuing his playful routine.
    – agarza
    Commented Apr 4 at 14:42
  • I would assume so, he does not seem scared afterwards or anything similar. He just turns back to the soft ball he usually is
    – CodeJunkie
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:36

1 Answer 1

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I would recommend caution against continuing play if your cat is putting claws or teeth on you (even if it's not really harming you). These things may be cute now, but may be less cute as he continues to gain muscle and weight in the next year and may be frightening or harmful in the future if he needs to interact with anyone who isn't you (such as a pet sitter or your friends and family).

If you want to stop this behavior, here are some recommendations:

  • Model the behavior you want to see. If you expect him to not play rough with you, then you should stop playing rough with him. This includes all hitting, wrestling, and "rough play" for the time being. Once you are confident that he understands how to be gentle, you may be able to re-introduce some wrestling again, but right now it will only be confusing.

When Things Hurt

  • Tell him clearly when he is being too rough. Create a noise that you will use every time he puts his teeth or claws on you. I typically recommend a high pitched squeal/squeak like an "Eeep!" sound because that's a sound that he can use to communicate with you too, but it can actually be anything. Other examples would be a hiss, clap, or just "Ouch." said a specific tone every time. This needs to be something that you don't use in other contexts, something that he will be able to hear and instantly understand that you're hurt so that he can back off. Then, use it every single time he starts to engage with his claws or teeth, whether it hurts you or not.

  • Use disengagement as your secondary cue When you tell him he's hurting you or that his play is inappropriate (using your squeak or other noise), you should also disengage. This means you get up, turn your body away from him, lift your feet away, etc. and generally stop all play for the moment. Essentially, you're telling him "I don't want to play if you're going to be rough." If he backs off, you can go back to playing after a brief pause. When you first start doing this, he won't understand. He'll think that you ignoring him is a fun new way that you're playing. You'll need to be consistent to teach him what it means.

  • Use isolation, not retaliation. When he doesn't take your cues and respect your decision to disengage, remove him or yourself from the situation to clearly communicate "no, we're done playing." Ideally, you would remove yourself by going into another room for a while and shutting the door. If that's not possible, you can put him into another room instead. Usually, 5-10 minutes is all a cat needs to cool down a little and rejoin civilization, although if he tries to go right back to the rough play/stalking, repeat the process.

Just to recap, when he puts his teeth or claws on you, the steps go:

  1. Your Designated "Ouch" Noise (hiss, "eep," clap, "ouch!" etc.)
  2. Disengage
  3. Isolate (if needed)

With consistency, he will understand why and when this happens and will start to be gentler because he will want the play to continue.

Why This Works

This strategy is more effective than physical "punishment" for two reasons.

  • It is entirely separate from play. For example, if you are swatting at him when he hurts you, he could easily interpret that as just a part of play. If he hurts you a little, you hurt him a little, he hurts you a little more, etc. It just continues. Think about two boys on the playground whacking each other back and forth. It doesn't stop until one of them runs away in tears. If you interrupt that process by disengaging, then the play stops rather than escalating. It's clear and distinct.

  • It helps him regulate. Cats can become overstimulated easily, which can lead to "wild" behavior like sprinting around the house, shredding a toy (or your arm), etc. These behaviors can be done in play, but they are also common in cats who have become overstimulated since it lets them release those feelings. As humans, it can be hard for us to know exactly when a cat crosses the line between play and reactivity, and it's easy for rough play to push a cat into being overstimulated and no longer having fun, even if it doesn't actually hurt them. If you give a physical correction like a swat, that adds sensory input, making an overstimulated response even more likely. On the other hand, if you disengage, that removes sensory input and gives him space to regulate his own feelings without lashing out at you.

One More Tip

  • Redirect to a toy It's natural for cats to want to sink their claws and teeth into something! That's not a bad behavior, it's part of who they are. But there are appropriate ways that he can channel that (attacking toys) and inappropriate ways (attacking people). If he's interested in stalking, then wand toys are a great substitute for your feet. When he wants to grab onto something and kick and bite it, then small stuffed animals or "kick toys" are much better than using your arm. He's still a baby, and when you see those instincts start to surface, you can teach him how to direct them by offering a toy to play with instead of your body.
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    I've started consistently encouraging rough play with toys but not with my body and it seems it is working. He actually started playing with his toys more
    – CodeJunkie
    Commented Apr 8 at 8:39
  • @CodeJunkie I'm so glad to hear that! Commented Apr 9 at 13:25

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