How to stop your cat from biting when playing

Is your cat acting too aggressively as you play with him? It’s more common that kittens and young cats bite when playing, but if the behavior is not stopped early, it may continue into adulthood, when the cute little bites of a cute little kitten become harsh and painful.

Cat biting playfully

In this article, you will learn how to stop a cat from biting during play sessions and in other situations. You will also find out the best way to play with your cat without being scratched.

Disclaimer: This article focuses on solving a specific aggression type – play aggression in cats, which is often confused with offensive or defensive aggression exhibited due to fear and territorial issues, or with other kinds of aggression. You can learn more about causes of human directed aggression in cats, but it’s advisable to consult a professional animal behaviorist when dealing with aggression in cats.

What is play aggression in cats?

Play aggression (commonly referred to as predatory aggression) is a natural cat behavior, because playing is hunting, and hunting is a method to survive in a natural environment. However, as natural as it may be, problems arise if the cat exhibits play aggression towards humans (especially children or elderly people); if he scratches and bites hands too hard; if the cat becomes overly aggressive towards other pets; and if his prey instincts keep him awake at night.

To stop a cat from biting, it’s necessary to understand the natural impulses behind this behavior. So, why do cats bite when playing with owners? Short answer – because your cat thinks your body parts are prey.

You’ve probably noticed that when you use a toy, or scratch your fingers under a sheet, a cat is aroused by this almost immediately. We mentioned before that prey instinct is almost uncontrollable for the cat. Your cat sees a moving object; no time to identify whether it’s a mouse or something else – he jumps right on it.

How to stop a cat from biting during play

  • Do not punish your cat for being aggressive! Why? #1 Punishment will not work. It may actually make the situation worse and turn your cat’s “play aggression” into fear aggression – attacking you because he or she is afraid of you. #2 Play aggression is not your cat’s fault. Remember how we said that play behavior is instinctive? Your cat sees a target and can’t help but try to catch it. #3 And yes, punishment is cruel, but that’s not even the main thing here.
  • Hand wrestling with a kitten. It reinforces play aggression in cats.
    Kitten Hand-wrestling is one of the most popular pet sports. As cute as it is, it reinforces play aggression in later life. Photo by pinguino k, CC BY 2.0

    Do not use your fingers and hands for playing. Also do not hand-wrestle with your cat and do not rub his belly, even if it’s so inviting. This is a paradox. People complain about their cats biting their fingers, but still they use fingers as toys for the cat. You can’t expect your cat not to bite your fingers (or ankles, or feet) if you use them for playing now and then. Stopping now, of course, won’t make your cat less aggressive towards parts of your body, but it is a necessary step to begin the change. Never use fingers for play; forget that you ever used them, and your cat might forget, too.

  • Guide your cat’s predatory energy towards playing. Your cat’s play aggression happens because it’s natural for a cat to want to attack moving objects. If your cat’s desire gets satisfied through playing, he will never have a reason to attack you. There are two playing methods: interactive play, where a cat plays with a toy controlled by his owner (but not his owner’s fingers), and solo play, where a cat enjoys toys on his own. The first one is more powerful to stop your cat from biting your fingers; however, both should be provided.
    • Get at least a few interactive toys, and every day enjoy several 5- to 15-minute play sessions with your cat. Of course, the more the better. Check here for tips to find more time to play with your cat. Let your cat be aggressive towards the toy; keep his focus away from your fingers, arms, or feet. Remember, if you move the toy, YOU are in control, and your cat will focus his attention on you. You will see a significant decrease in your cat’s general aggression and restlessness after just a few days, but don’t stop there. Regular activities are the key to stop your cat from biting you.
    • Provide solo play opportunities to your cat. You can’t be around all the time, and a few play sessions, while important as a learning and communication tool, may not be enough for a cat to spend his energy. Choices for solo toys are pretty wide, starting from bouncy balls and mice on wires, and ending with puzzle feeders and electronic toys. The choice is up to you, but we’d recommend you have at least one treat dispenser ball. That is a small ball filled with cat food; as your cat plays with it, pieces drop out one by one. Provide at least one of your cat’s meals this way. It stimulates your cat to “work” for food, and it will keep him interested in playing.
  • Teach your cat to play the right way. And teach yourself the right way to play, too. Don’t bounce the toy back and forth rapidly, making your cat’s eyes spin; don’t wiggle it; don’t dangle it in your cat’s face. Instead, use lateral movements and generally drag the toy away, not towards your cat. Use varying speeds; let your cat catch and chew the toy every now and then. Keep the toy a safe distance from your feet, fingers or other body parts your cat likes to attack, and make sure his attention is on the toy.
  • Stop playing once your cat attacks you. Best, of course, is to play with your cat in such a way that he never reaches that point, but if he does, abruptly end the play session and leave the room (or just leave the room if you were not actually playing). You are free to re-enter the room after a few minutes, but do not resume playing with your cat until he is settled down. Most cats love playing, and the thing is to teach your cat that if he acts aggressively, playing stops. That is, it is okay for your cat to be aggressive, but this aggression must be directed towards toys.
  • Learn to predict when your cat will attack you. Be a wizard! It’s usually easy to notice when a cat is playing normally, then suddenly his energy rises and he lashes out with an attack. Learn to see what’s going on. Is your cat growling before that? Is your cat’s tail or skin twitching, or is he or she hissing, before an attack? Keep this information in your head when you interact with your cat, and make sure you give yourself time to act BEFORE aggression begins. What can you do?
    • Option A: Reduce the intensity of playing. If you are petting your cat, slow down the petting, or stop it completely. See here for more information about cat biting during petting.
    • cat playing aggressively with a toy on a string
      It’s okay to play aggressively. But let the toy, instead of your fingers, be the target.

      Option B: Try to focus your cat’s attention towards the toy. If you are playing using an interactive toy, dangle it away from you. If you are just entering a room, throw a solo toy in a different direction to attract your cat’s attention.

    • Option C: Step away. If you have time to step away, do it. Taking a few steps aside may reduce your cat’s interest in your feet or fingers. Consider leaving the room if you still have time. If you don’t, your last option is…
    • Option D: Startle your cat if the attack has already begun. Loudly clap your hands or make a hissing sound. It should stop him for a moment, giving you a chance to leave. Don’t turn this into a longer session of yelling or scolding your cat. Remember, don’t punish; startle your cat to stop your his dangerous activity and then leave.

Your cat will not stop biting overnight, though you will probably see rapid improvements after you begin to implement these strategies. Remember: you must understand that it’s okay for your cat to be aggressive during play. Cats are hunters, and they see playing as equal to hunting. The only option is whether this aggression is expressed by biting your fingers or biting toys. You can help your cat make the right choice. If you also struggle with other behavior problems of your cat, check this list here.