Teach your new kitten to play safely…

play-learningTeaching a kitten to play safely is really easy, as long as you start it from the very beginning!

Playing is an essential developmental stage for all mammals, and at some level for birds and reptiles as well.  It occurs at the age and stage when the brain and body are becoming co-ordinated.  While the activity may look pointless and ‘playful’ it is nearly always driven by an instinctive drive to acquire life survival skills.

Kittens go through several stages of playing, but the one that feeds into aggression to humans (Concern number 4) is the hunting drive.  To feed themselves (and every cat born is equipped to become a self-sufficient stray), a kitten has to develop the muscles and co-ordination to kill a mouse.  A skilled adult cat takes 3 pounces, on average, to catch one mouse.  Many more are required for a kitten to get it right.  In the same way as a piano player or tennis player is not a virtuoso from day one, it takes lots of practice to refine hunting skills.

What happens if a kitten does not get enough play time?

If, for example, there is only one feline in the house and the owner works long hours away from home, the consequences can be quite painful!  The kitten builds that energy and uses it to pounce on the owner’s toes at midnight, or bite their hands and legs when they move.  Everyone loves the ‘play hunting’ that kittens do, but not when their hands and legs are the objects hunted!

Cats are intelligent & agile creatures. During play, a kitten or an adult cat makes full use of its surroundings to provide itself with mental and physical challenges. Particularly attracted to moving objects, cats investigate new things on ground level or elevated surfaces alike. Play allows a young animal to practice important life skills without adult consequences. Running, jumping, hiding, and other playful antics could be invaluable later when hunting for food or escaping an enemy.

How do you play with a kitten effectively?

Other than getting a second kitten (which is of course THE BEST answer!)? Toys need to be ‘mouse-sized’ and shaped (a distinct ‘neck’ is very inviting) and move at ‘mouse speed’ (25 cm/second).  ‘Run and freeze’ is the other key to stimulating the ‘play / hunt drive’ and towing a toy on a string under a piece of newspaper gets a BIG reaction.  ‘Da Bird’ toy is excellent – but don’t wave it too fast – stick to the 25 cm/second speed for best effect, and DO let the kitten CATch and destroy it or they will get even more frustrated (similar to teasing).

Play gives you an opportunity to teach acceptable behaviour to your cat. Avoid forms of play that encourage a cat’s aggressiveness. No cat should learn that it is acceptable and fun to pounce on, grip, bite, or scratch any part of a person’s clothing or body. Such innocent fun as chasing wiggling fingers or toes under the bedcovers could lead to problems later.

Kittens are programmed to pounce 30 times a day.  So, reducing aggression to humans in a young cat (assuming a normal kitten) involves adequate and appropriate play, refraining from directing the play towards human hands or feet (because what a kitten plays with now she will bite to the bone when adult, and that will put you in hospital with blood poisoning for sure) and making the play feline friendly rather than owner desired.

The target of a cat’s playful attention should be directed away from its human playmate. Introduce a variety of toys for your cat to chase, such as light-weight balls or toys suspended from string or wire. Your cat can simulate attacks without risking injury to anyone. If your kitten continues to attack your person, and draw blood, you need to take preventative action. Children should scream loudly and fall over – the over-dramatisation will tell the kitten they have hurt their friend, and they will be more gentle next time. Adults should ‘hiss’ at the kitten when they see it coming in attack mode, or firmly ‘scruff’ it and then use ‘time out’ (for three minutes only) to interrupt the game. That way, the kitten learns the rules safely, and does not grow up attacking and drawing blood when their teeth and claws can do real damage.

Getting another kitten can help to solve the problem quickly, but only in the early stages and may not be practical for a particular home environment. Regardless, once over 18 months old, there are problems involved with getting a feline friend for a cat who has lived only with people or dogs (they forget ‘cat language’ and are usually too bonded to the owner to share them with another cat).

Young cats often appear to respond to some ‘phantom’ enemy during normal play. The pet may pause as if to listen or look at something and then race away. Some people believe that, during such episodes, the cat is reacting to an imagined object or intruder. It is also possible that the cat is responding to a real stimulus that people cannot detect.

Juvenile cats are usually very active, sometimes overwhelming their owners. Young cats tend to be more active during evening and night time hours and frequently disturb their owners’ sleep. Cats are naturally crepuscular (more active a dawn and dusk) because they have adapted to hunting in relative darkness. If your cat is satisfied with the amount of attention and exercise it gets before your bedtime, chances are good that its schedule of peak activity will gradually match yours. If your young cat tends to nap during the day when you are home, wake it up to play.

Though cats frequently seem to amuse themselves when there is no available playmate, they often thrive on additional social interaction with you. To increase your chances of sleeping through the night, play appropriate games with your cat and engage it in other activities it might enjoy, such as brushing, before retiring to bed. Provide a variety of attractive toys to entertain your cat so it is less likely to awaken you. Once you have gone to bed, consistently ignore your cat’s attempts to get your attention and it will eventually stop disturbing you.

‘Cat-proof’ your home by removing or preventing access to valuable or hazardous objects that will attract your cat. Apply screens on windows to prevent accidental falls or intentional escapes. It is normal for a cat to investigate elevated surfaces (tabletops, mantel) in its territory. Your valuables may be accidentally destroyed in such exploration, or the cat may destroy objects through playful mischief.

If your cat damages items in certain areas, it may be necessary to close the door to that room. Another option to discourage your cat from returning to an area is to make it an unpleasant place to visit. Strips of sticky tape placed sticky side up are an unpleasant surprise for cats to step on, as are shallow baking trays filled with water.If your cat is destructive or harmful with its claws during play, keep them well trimmed to avoid damage.

Most young cat ‘behavioural problems’ can be related to insufficient, inappropriate play and hunting instincts. Give your kitten consistent rules (or get another feline as a friend to do it for you is even better!) and everyone will enjoy the hunting game.