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December 10, 2019

Ninja Kitten! Play Aggression

Today I met an adorable kitten—a 12 week old orange fluff ball, appropriately named Fluffer, who had been adopted when she was 8 weeks old. This tiny little ball of fur was terrorizing her adoring humans, biting and scratching whenever she wanted to play. According to the sleep-deprived cat parents, the only down time they got was when the kitten ate and eliminated. They were desperate for help and asked me to come to their home.

I was greeted at the door by Brittany and her frustrated mother, Anne. In the middle of the room Christopher, Anne’s husband, laughed and giggled as he delighted in playing with Fluffer, rolling the kitten on her back and petting her irresistible tummy. I watched for a few minutes as Christopher hid his hand under a newspaper, moving his fingers, encouraging Fluffer to stalk and pounce.

According to Anne and Christopher, Fluffer stalked and attacked at every opportunity. The time of day or the circumstances didn’t matter—when Fluffer wanted attention, she jumped, attacked and then bit. Usually she didn’t break skin, but occasionally she did. The problem, instead of getting better had worsened. Christopher admitted that when Fluffer went into attack mode, he usually responded by roughhousing with her.

I wondered if Christopher would be willing to change the way he related to Fluffer.

90% Human Behavior; 10% Kitten

It is natural for kittens to play intensely. Although play is fun it is also serious business. Kittens learn important survival and social skills when they play. Play also helps kittens develop coordination.

Kittens are little sponges when it comes to learning—they have to be in order to survive in a hostile world. Like all animals, one way they learn is by repeating behaviors when the behaviors are rewarded. Christopher reinforced Fluffer’s biting by using his hands when playing with the kitten. He also encouraged the kitten to grab and bite him during play—rewarding the kitten with attention when she attacked. Fluffer, being a bright kitten, assumed that biting was acceptable so now whenever she wants to interact with her favorite people she does what works—biting.

Brittany caught on right way. She thought a possible solution would be re-homing her dad so that he wouldn’t roughhouse with Fluffer anymore. Brittany wanted a kitten she could snuggle and cuddle with, not a Ninja kitten who pounced and attempted to kill anything that moved.

Changing Behaviors

The kitten’s behavior can be changed, but everyone in the household has to be on board—modifying how they interact with Fluffer. Christopher has to stop using his hands when playing with the kitten and he needs to resist roughhousing with her. His task is to learn how to play; using pole type toys and other interactive play items instead of his hands.

Time outs will also help change Fluffer’s behavior. Whenever she becomes over-stimulated or solicits attention through biting, Fluffer’s victim needs to stand up and leave the room without interacting with her. Time outs are short; a few seconds are usually all that is needed. Fluffer will quickly learn that when she bites and attacks, her favorite playmates disappear.

Everyone in the household promised they would do their part—changing the way they played with the kitten. Brittany could now look forward to stashing the first aid kit in the cabinet and safely snuggling with her little kitten.

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