Does your adorable kitten come complete with a sharp set of teeth? Kittens frequently bite their owners, and new owners often want to know why kittens bite and what they can do to get their kitten to stop biting. In this article, we’ll go over what makes kittens bite and how to curb this behavior.
Why do kittens bite?
Contrary to popular belief, biting in kittens has nothing to do with aggression but rather about how they interact with the world. Young kittens are learning about their new environment, exploring their surroundings, and (perhaps most importantly) practicing their instinctive hunting skills.
The first reason some kittens may bite has to do with teething. Teething refers to the process of permanent teeth developing and growing in your kittens’ mouth. Kittens are both toothless and shortly thereafter begin developing “milk teeth” or “baby teeth”, which later give way to the larger and stronger adult teeth. At birth only the gum surface is visible inside a kitten’s mouth. This allows them to nurse without hurting the mother.
The first stage of teething occurs when the kitten’s baby teeth begin developing. The second occurs when the baby teeth fall out and your kitten gets his adult teeth. Teething happens quickly in kittens as compared to humans; the baby teeth come in beginning as early as 2 weeks and as late as 6 weeks of age. During this time, their deciduous teeth (also known as “temporary”, “baby”, or “milk” teeth) start to break through the gums. This is referred to as “erupting.”
These processes can cause pain and discomfort, and many kittens will want to bite and chew as their adult teeth begin developing to soothe these sensations. The second phase of teething occurs when the adult teeth start to come in, pushing the baby teeth out. This phase of teething starts around 8 weeks of age, and most breeds show permanent teeth at 6 to 7 months of age. Teething (and biting) is often worst between 12 and 20 weeks of age.
The second reason kittens bite is related to learning instinctual predatory activities. The prey drive of domestic cats is strong despite their comfortable, well-fed lives, and they will often bite as they test their skills and mimic hunting behavior. Kittens often play and practice their skills with hunting and attacking predatory behavior frequently referred to as “play aggression.”
Why do kittens bite when they play?
It might seem counter-intuitive for cats to want to play so rough, but it’s actually yet another curious feline instinct. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor and clinical behaviorist at Tufts University College of Veterinary Medicine, says: “Kittens are adorable, but when they are around four months of age, a dark side usually emerges – a side that involves seemingly diabolical aggression.” Dodman says, “As troubling as the attacks can be, play aggression is a normal part of kittens’ development.”
Play behavior, including aggression, is practice for a kitten’s future role as an adult. It is practice for the eventual chase and catch prey drive. It has nothing to do with wanting to hurt you or its playmates.
Dodman has found that cats have two common forms of play aggression. The first is the “attack-retreat behavior” and the other is “predatory play”; that is, hunting, chasing, and mock attack behavior.
The attack–retreat behavior involves (you guessed it) two behaviors: one of attack and one of retreat. Kittens need to learn how to deal with both situations and will practice these behaviors in the form of play. If you ever watch young kittens play, you might notice them prancing by each other then jumping on the other, rolling around wrestling-style with teeth bared and claws out, only for one to run off with the other in quick pursuit. They’ll roll and prance some more, then reverse roles and keep going. Kittens will practice these advances and retreats over and over, gaining valuable hunting skills that would serve them in their predatory roles in the wild.
Predatory play aggression involves classic behavior that you might even recognize from your own cat’s play. Kittens will crouch, creep, hide, and “stalk” their “prey” (which could be anything from toys and paper to hands, fingers, and toes). Once they have their targets locked, they pounce, just as they would have in the wild.
When do kittens stop biting?
In most kittens, biting behavior is generally worst around 4 months of age and diminishes over time, usually disappearing by one year of age.
How do I stop my kitten from biting me?
Here are some important recommendations on ways to stop your kitten from biting. Of these, I think that numbers 2, 3, and 4 are crucial in correcting your kitten’s behavior while they are still young.
- Get another kitten. Kittens that grow up together can practice their play and predatory aggressions on each other, often leaving you alone. This works great for some homes but not all. (If you aren’t looking for another kitten, don’t rush into it; read on for more.)
- Provide plenty of playtime for your kitten. That usually means at least 20 to 30 minutes of active play a day. This focuses your cat’s attention and energy in acceptable ways. Feathery flyer-type toys and rolling balls will help cats catch and “kill” their prey, keeping their instincts tamed and your toes safe.
- Learn how to “read” your kitten and avoid their aggression. Once you get to know your kitten, you’ll often learn to recognize the signs when the biting is about to happen. Some kittens will have flashing eyes, dilated pupils, rippling backs, swishing tails, a muted purr, and will perch in “pounce” mode. Some cats will tip their ears back and flatten them against their head or may even growl. When you see that your kitten may start to bite stop what you are doing and withdraw your attention from your kitten. Stop petting, playing, or whatever it is you are doing and walk away. If your kitten is on your lap, gently place your cat on the floor and avoid further behavior on your part that may encourage your cat to bite.
- Divert the behavior. As with #3, it’s important to learn how to “read” your cat so when you see the situation coming, you can focus the energy on acceptable prey behavior. When you notice your kitten in a situation where he or she might bite, get out a toy and encourage them to play. Roll a ball, use a battery-operated toy, offer them toys such as feline flyers or laser pointers, or use whatever encourages your kitten to play to redirect their attention.
- For kittens that really go after your hands, some behaviorist recommend using a foul-tasting additive such as a commercial product called Bitter Apple™ or even Tabasco sauce. These are nontoxic for cats but they taste terrible; after one or two licks or bites, kittens often learn that biting is not all that fun.
- Be calm and be patient. Kittens outgrow this phase.
- NEVER ever hit, shout or chase your kitten. Screaming or hitting your kitten only scares them and makes them afraid of you! They generally don’t understand what they did to deserve your behavior and this kind of punishment is absolutely not recommended.
- Reward good behavior. When your kitten is playing nice or lying sweetly, gently praise them with a soft touch or even a small treat. Rewarding good behavior helps your kitten understand what is expected of him or her.
Another important aspect of dealing with a kitten that bites is to make sure that everyone in the home is on the same page. It is very confusing if one person in the home encourages the kitten to play-bite their hands and the others do not. Be consistent with your kitten.