The following article is from the August edition of the Home Again newsletter:
Teaching Your Kitten to Have Manners
"If you ignore the bad behavior, eventually the kitten will learn that doing it will not garner the attention she wants. Nighttime meowing, for example, could be your kitten's call for food or water. If her bowls are full and she still meows, ignore her."
A new kitten brings joy to any household. She meows and purrs, she chases imaginary prey, and she wrestles with your hand as you pet her. Those antics may be adorable for a kitten, but they can lead to bad—and painful—habits if she continues those behaviors as an adult.
Terry Marie Curtis, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVB, a clinical behaviorist at the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University Of Florida College Of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, says furniture scratching, aggression directed at people, and annoyance behaviors frustrate unprepared new kitten owners. Some cats develop bad habits due to the improper playing routines of their owners.
First and foremost, consult your veterinarian to assure that the naughty behavior is not health-related. After the kitten passes her exam, try these tricks to deal with those bad manners.
1. Scratch in the Right Place
Scratching is a normal activity no matter her age. A cat scratches for one of two reasons: to shed her claws or as a social indicator to mark her territory.
"It is part of grooming behavior, serving to loosen the old layers of the claw and to hone the claw to a sharp point," Dr. Curtis says. "It is also part of marking behavior, serving to provide visual and olfactory cues to other cats."
If you don't provide appropriate scratching surfaces, you might find your favorite couch in shreds. Instead, place stable vertical or horizontal sisal boards and cardboard or carpet scratching posts throughout the house. Experiment to determine which surface your kitten prefers. A little catnip sprinkled on the scratching posts will entice even the most finicky kitty.
Keep your kitten's nails trimmed, too. This will prevent her from scratching to shed her claws. Ask your veterinarian to recommend the best type of trimmer for your kitten, and keep some styptic powder handy in case you cut into the quick (the living part) of the nail and cause bleeding.
2. Keep Your Teeth and Claws to Yourself
Humans delight in playing with their kittens, and this often includes play wrestling with hands or feet. This only encourages biting and scratching in adult cats, Curtis says.
Instead, play with your kitten using interactive toys, such as fishing poles, feather wands, or laser lights. These will teach your kitten that it's OK to wrestle and play, but not with a human's hand or foot. Kittens love to play stalking games too, hiding behind a chair to seize their humans' ankles or legs when they walk by. Though this may seem like aggressive behavior, the kitten actually sees the human as a giant toy.
"In cases of play-motivated aggression, the cat tends to take a stalking stance and pounce on its victim," Curtis says. "Many owners think that their cat hates them, but in fact the reverse is true - the owner is the most fun thing around!"
As with the play biting and scratching, toys redirect a kitten's exuberance. Be sure your kitten has plenty of catnip mice and crackle balls to stalk instead of your feet.
3. Meow All You Want
Kittens meow excessively and counter surf when they want a human's attention.
"Annoyance behaviors tend to be attention-seeking behaviors, so it's important to give your kitten attention in a good way," Curtis says. "And that means playing with your cat and providing an outlet for all of its energy."
If you ignore the bad behavior, eventually the kitten will learn that doing it will not get her the attention she wants. Nighttime meowing, for example, could be your kitten's call for food or water. If her bowls are full and she still meows, ignore her.
"The most important thing is to ignore your cat when it meows once you've made sure that everything is OK," Curtis says. "Otherwise, the cat will learn that this is a reliable way of getting you up and getting attention—cats are very smart this way!"
Teaching your kitten manners while she's young will ensure a well-behaved adult cat. A little attention and a lot of toys go a long way in assuaging playful—and trouble-making—tendencies.