Category Archives: playing

Why Cats Bite and How to Prevent the Behavior

By Julia Williams

My girl kitty Annabelle is the sweetest cat I’ve ever known. Normally, she can’t get enough of my lovin’, but if I try to pet her immediately upon waking, she will nip me. Not break-the-skin bites, but a clear signal for me to stop. I don’t know why she hates being touched only at that time, but I joke that “she’s just not a morning cat.” If people can be anti-morning, why not cats? Thankfully, it’s the only time she bites, and as long as I resist the urge to pet her upon awakening, it’s not a problem.

Others aren’t so lucky. According to feline behaviorists, biting is the second most common problem for cat owners (peeing outside the box is the first). This issue needs to be corrected, because cat bites are not only painful when they occur but they can cause serious infections. I’ll discuss three of the most common reasons why cats bite, and what you can do to reduce or eliminate this problem behavior.

Petting Induced Aggression

Scenario: You’re sitting there petting your cat who is purring away and seemingly enjoying the attention when all of a sudden she whirls and sinks her teeth into your hand. What just happened?

First of all, let’s be clear. In most cases, your cat’s transformation from friendly Dr. Jekyll to psychotic Mr. Hyde was not instantaneous. Your cat’s body language was telling you it was time to stop petting; you just missed the signals or misinterpreted them.

These signals include tail lashing or thumping, ears flattened or twitching, shifting body positions, eyes focused on your hand. She stops purring and may even meow or growl.  If you don’t heed your cat’s warning(s) that she’s had enough, she goes to Plan B – the bite – and voila, petting stops.

Some reasons your cat wants the petting session to end:

1. Overstimulation – for some cats, there’s a fine line between what feels good and what doesn’t. They can only handle so much stimulation before sensory overload occurs.

2. Not in the mood – sometimes what your cat wanted was to play, not to be petted. They may tolerate your petting for a little while because they love you, but then they just want it to stop.

3. Sensitivity – some areas of a cat’s body may be more sensitive than others, and being touched there is uncomfortable. Individual cats may also have specific areas of the body where they like being petted and others where they don’t. It’s up to you to figure out which is which, by paying attention to their body language.

Learning the sometimes subtle “stop it” cues your cat gives before they have to resort to biting you, will enable you both to enjoy the petting session and have it end on a positive note.

Play Aggression

Many people unwittingly encourage their cat to develop a habit of biting them during play, by engaging in roughhousing and offering their hands, fingers and toes as “toys.” Sure, it seems really cute and innocent when they’re a tiny kitten, but this type of play has Cat Bite written all over it. Your cat isn’t able to discern how rough is too rough. If you want your cat to stop biting you while playing, never use your body parts as toys. That means no tickling them, no moving your finger for them to chase, no tapping your toes as an invitation to pounce. And pass up products like gloves with balls on the end that encourages your cat to see your hand as a toy – they simply can’t understand that it’s only OK to attack when the gloves are on. Be sure that every family member follows this strict rule, or biting during play will continue, and one day it may go too far.

Cats are natural born hunters, and need to engage in “stalk and pounce” play for mental satisfaction. If your kitty likes to lie in wait and bite your ankles when you walk by, try carrying a small catnip mouse, fuzzy ball or other cat toy that you can toss away from you to redirect their attention. It’s also a good idea to provide plenty of interactive playtime with the appropriate toys (remember – no fingers!).

Redirected Aggression

Sometimes an agitated cat will lash out at a person or another cat in the household that had nothing to do with the reason the cat got upset. This is called redirected aggression. It can occur when your inside cat sees a cat outside – trespassing on “his” territory. It can also occur when you take one cat to the vet and he comes home smelling like “that place.” There are many other reasons that can cause a cat to take out his frustration on you instead of the person or thing that upset him.

Your best strategy is to try to figure out what the stressor is and take steps to remove it. For example, if a trespassing cat has your kitty in an uproar, find a way to either discourage the cat from coming around (such as installing motion activated sprinklers) or keep the curtains closed. It can take some fine detective work to figure out what’s causing the redirected aggression, but don’t give up. Also, don’t try to interact with your cat when he’s highly agitated, as this will almost certainly result in being bitten.

Top photo by Tnarik Innael/Flickr
Middle photo by Sam Howzit/Flickr
Bottom photo by d.i.o.d.e./Flickr

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The Body Language of a Playful Dog

By Linda Cole

Most dog owners are familiar with the play bow dogs use to invite another dog or people to play with them. But that’s not the only signal a playful dog uses to communicate what they want. As important as it is to understand a dog’s body language to prevent problems before they start, it’s just as important to understand when your dog is playing and just wants to have some fun. A stare isn’t always meant to intimidate.

For those who may not know what a play bow is, it’s the body language dogs use to communicate to other dogs and us they aren’t a threat. Their intentions are friendly, and they are inviting us to play. The dog making the invitation puts his front legs out in front of him as if he’s getting ready to lie down, but his butt stays up in the air. His tail is held above him in a relaxed wave, and you can almost see a smile spreading across his face. Everything about his demeanor is puppy-like, happy and friendly.

Watching dogs play is an interesting expression of socialization. Playful canines love to engage in bumps, body checks, rushing at each other, growling, barking, staring and wrestling. It can appear at times like an all out battle is close at hand. This can happen if one dog has had enough play or feels a bit too intimidated by a more aggressive playing dog. Paying attention to each dog’s body language can help you determine if it’s all just play or if you need to step in and stop the game before it gets out of hand.
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Why Laser Pointers Can be Frustrating for Pets

By Linda Cole

I’ve never gotten into the laser pointers people use to entertain their pets. I don’t really know why, because I can’t help but smile when I see a dog or cat chasing that little light. It’s a good way to get them up on their feet for some playtime and exercise. However, chasing that red dot can be frustrating for our furry friends, and there is a potential hazard of eye injury.

In reality, the eyesight of dogs and cats isn’t as sharp as ours when it comes to seeing distant things clearly. Dog and cat eyes are made to see best in dim light, and being able to see brilliant colors and details like we see isn’t necessary when hunting prey. Compared to our field of vision, which is looking straight ahead, dog can see 240 degrees, cats see at 200 degrees, and we come in last with a field of vision of 180 degrees. The binocular vision (where the field of vision of both eyes intersect) of humans and cats is 140 degrees compared to dogs with 30 to 60 degrees. Dogs and cats depend on movement, especially rapid movement, to see things up close. Both dogs and cats have a visual streak, which is a high density line made up of vision cells across the retina. This gives them extremely good peripheral vision for seeing motion, and dogs can see better out of the corner of their eyes than cats can.

Motion is what activates a dog or cat’s prey drive. That’s why a mouse, rabbit or small prey will freeze in place – to make it harder to be seen. Laser pointers can quickly get a pet’s attention. Not because of the little red dot, though. It’s the motion of the dot that clicks on a pet’s prey drive and catches their interest, and there’s no way they can ignore the moving light. The problem with that erratic light is that it’s impossible for a dog or cat to actually catch it, and that makes it frustrating for them. Some dogs can develop behavior problems if they become obsessed with trying to catch that darn light. Cats aren’t as likely to become obsessed because they have a tendency to lose interest faster than dogs.
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How to Help a Senior Cat Find His Inner Kitten

By Julia Williams

The age a cat is considered “senior” varies depending upon who you ask. Even the so-called “cat experts” disagree. Some think an 8-10 year old cat is a senior, others put the age between 10-12 or 12-14, and some say as young as 7 years old. In their Senior Care Guidelines, the American Association of Feline Practitioners puts it this way:  “There is no specific age at which a cat ‘becomes senior.’ Individual animals and body systems age at different rates.”

My cat Mickey is almost 15; Rocky and Annabelle will be 11 in July. So they’re all seniors, but still alert, active, playful and at times (overly) rambunctious. They may not always act like youngsters, but they do have moments where their inner kitten comes out to play. That’s a good thing, even though at 5 a.m. it might seem otherwise.

Play is very important to all cats, perhaps even more so to senior cats because it can keep them “young in spirit” which helps combat the effects of aging. We see this in older people all the time – those who are active not only live longer but have more vitality. I let my inner child come out to play as often as possible, and try to help my senior cats find their inner kitten, too.

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The Types of Toys Cats Really Like

By Linda Cole

Cats need to play, and they enjoy it just as much as dogs do. Outside cats have nature provided “toys” like dried leaves blowing around on the ground and bugs crawling through the grass. Inside kitties depend on their owners to find interesting and exciting toys to play with – when they aren’t napping in a sun puddle, that is. However, not any old toy will do, from a cat’s point of view, and there are specific toys cats really like to play with.

Because felines are true carnivores and hunters, every aspect of the hunt is important to all kitties whether they live inside or outside. If you’ve ever observed a cat watching a bird sitting on a tree limb, you can see her excitement level grow as she sizes up her prey. The tail twitches back and forth, her intense eyes are focused, the whiskers are pulled forward, and her body is taut with anticipation. The intricate process of stalking prey is a cat’s ultimate toy.

The best toys for cats are those that allow them to use their predatory skills. It’s the act of hunting that entertains them. Toys that allow them to stalk, pounce on, bite, claw, grab and hug against their body, and simulate a bite to the neck of their pretend prey is a good toy. When you watch a cat play, everything about how they entertain themselves is connected to hunting. This is true even in cats that have never been taught to hunt.

When cats play, it’s how they practice and hone their skills as the perfect hunter. Once she detects movement, her instincts take over as she watches her “opponent” and waits for the right time to pounce, which is usually spot on. Toys that mimic the movements of natural prey, even if they don’t look like a mouse or bird, are ones cats find intriguing. A piece of string wiggling along the floor or held up and dangled in front of a cat will get her attention – as long as it keeps moving. Once it stops, however, a cat will quickly grow tired of it. Their brain is hardwired to detect the slightest movement of a mouse, and movement is what draws their interest to a toy.
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How to Tell if Dogs are Playing or Showing Aggression

By Linda Cole

Two of my dogs, Keikei and Dozer, constantly play in a way that would likely cause someone who doesn’t know them to assume they’re in an all-out fight. There are growls, yips and direct eye contact as they jockey around for good attacking positions. I know my dogs well enough to understand there is no aggression present in what appears to be aggressive tussling. However, even though I know it’s play, I still keep a sharp eye on them when they’re play fighting to make sure it doesn’t escalate to the next level. There are ways to tell the difference between aggression and play.

Play is an important part of a puppy’s education. They learn about bite inhibition, social skills and boundaries by curbing rough play so it doesn’t escalate into a fight. Dogs enjoy playing, and it’s a fun way to get beneficial exercise and bond with us and other dogs – as long as things don’t get out of hand. Our job is to recognize the warning signs of aggression and slow things down or stop play when necessary. We also need to allow non-aggressive actions to continue and let the dogs involved sort things out on their own.

Everyone has boundaries, including dogs. There are some things we let slide, and some things we just won’t tolerate. We have a line that, if crossed, may trigger a forceful reprimand that could turn into a more aggressive response. Dogs can’t sit down and discuss objections, and their only option to make their desires known is by submitting or lashing out. In my dogs’ case, both of them love a full contact, high-paced game of “attacking” each other. Both have dominant personalities, but they know each other’s breaking point and when it’s time to back off. However, there are times I have to step in to control a situation when their body language indicates one of them has had enough, and the other missed or ignored the signals.

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