How to teach a kitten to play gently

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Kittens are impossibly cute and playful--unless play results in bites and scratches. Here's how to train a kitten to play gently, according to cat expert Dr. Katherine Miller of the ASPCA.

How to teach a kitten to play gently Get off to a good start with a new kitten by teaching it how to play gently. Cats can be trained just like dogs and people, using positive and negative reinforcement. Use these tips for proper training:
  1. Start early and set boundaries by teaching kittens to be gentle and respectful.
  2. Substitute a toy when a kitten has the urge to use their mouth or claws during playtime.
  3. If the play becomes too rough, by biting or scratching your skin, immediately cease playing, make a verbal cue such as a shriek and become still like a statue. This teaches the kitten that their rough behavior ended the fun.
  4. Trim your kitten’s claws. This decreases the potential for damage. Start this habit young so your cat gets used to the grooming. Trim just a couple of nails at a time and give a treat when you’re done so they learn that it’s a pleasant experience.
Transcript

RON: Hi I'm Ron Corning for howdini.com and if you're bringing home a new little kitten to the house, well, we want to make sure you get off to a good start by teaching the kitten to play gently. Dr. Katherine Miller is joining us. She's an animal behavorist at the ASPCA. And there are a couple of things to keep in mind. People might generally think if you're bringing home a new kitten, they're playful by nature, there's not a whole lot to be mindful of, but you do need to start early in setting some boundaries, right?

DR. MILLER: Yes, that's right. They're very playful, but it's important to teach them to play nicely, play properly with people. It's okay to be rough and crazy with toys, but when it comes to human skin it's important to teach them from the very beginning to be very gentle and respectful. 

RON: So what's the first step?

DR. MILLER:  When a kitten gets playful and active and is using its mouth or claws to play, substitute a toy. Teach it that when it gets this urge, look for a toy. If it uses your skin and it gets a little too rough it's important that it learns that this is the end of playtime. It screwed up. So make a little sound like 'yikes!' Becomes a statue essentially. I tell people just become a statue because you're fine when you're moving around like a huge toy. But when you're still, you're really boring, and your cat's going to go, 'oh playtime's over, I screwed up. I won't do that next time.' 

RON: People might have this perception that cats can't be trained. This sounds like proof that from the very beginning they react to repeated behaviors and they start to make a connection and understand. 

DR. MILLER:  That's true. They learn cause and effect just like people do, just like dogs do. Behaviors that are rewarded, or get some type of reward, tend to increase in frequency. Behaviors that don't get those kind of rewards tend to decrease in frequency. So the behaviors you don't want, make sure there's no kind of rewards for them. And the behaviors you do want, those are the ones you want to encourage and praise your cat for doing. 

RON: Mm-hmm. 

DR. MILLER:  And it's important to teach them from the very beginning to be gentle with people, take that playful energy out on their toys and not skin.

RON: Alright Dr. Miller thank you. And I'm Ron Corning for howdini.com. 

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Katherine Miller

    Dr. Katherine Miller Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Katherine Miller is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer with the ASPCA’s ® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) National Programs Office. more about this expert »

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