QUESTION: About a month ago I took in a stray kitten that I found in my yard. Zelda is my first and only pet ever. She is absolutely adorable, but I have a big problem with her rough behavior. I am covered with scratches and wounds and am beginning to be afraid of my own pet! She lies in wait for me, attacks my ankles, climbs up my legs, leaps on me while I’m asleep and bites my feet, and chases me as I move about the house. Do I have an aggressive kitten? Is there anything I can do about it?
ANSWER: Actually, what you have is a normal kitten! Mother Nature has us kitties born into a litter for good reason – we learn everything that we need to know as adult cats from the interaction with our moms and siblings. We learn to stalk and attack prey, run and climb to escape danger, and defend ourselves from foes. At the same time, we burn off TONS of explosive kitten energy in a harmless way by chasing, wrestling, and play-fighting with our sibs.
What you are experiencing with Zelda is a common phenomenon known as “Single Kitten Syndrome.” SKS occurs when a kitten does not have an outlet for pursuing natural instincts and therefore uses a substitute, i.e., YOU! She is chasing, attacking, and pouncing on you exactly as she would with a littermate. The only difference is that with her mom and littermates, a kitten learns boundaries. When she plays too rough, the other kitten screeches and runs away, ending the play. So kitty learns to play gentler so that the others will include her. When she bites too hard suckling for milk, her mom gives her a disciplinary but harmless “bop” with her paw and moves away. We kitties hate when that happens, but it does teach us that “when Momma’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy!”
What’s the quickest, easiest way to redirect Zelda’s behavior? Get her a kitten friend as a playmate! That’s probably not what people expect to hear when they’re having trouble with one kitten, but it’s the reason why adopters of kitties are advised, “Two kittens are easier than one.” A solitary kitten gets into all kinds of mischief that includes both the behavior you describe AND getting into your stuff. When all that youthful zest is directed into the natural, normal outlet of play, Miss Ferocious Lion becomes Miss Frolicking Lamb, exhausted but happy after a day of running, wrestling, & leaping with her own kind, enjoying soccer games with a ball and stalking competitions with a toy mouse. And is there anything more heartwarming than the sight of two kittens curled up together, snoring peacefully with their arms around each other after a session of rough-and-tumble?
If getting a second kitten is not a possibility due to lease restrictions, you must take on the role of the other kitten, only this time you will be setting up the play with your safety in mind. First, you need several interactive toys that will keep your hands away from the line of action. Fishing pole type toys, fake birds suspended on a wire, and the laser light are three excellent ways to engage your kitty’s stalk-and-attack drive. If you have never watched a cat franticly chasing the little red dot of a laser toy, you have missed a hilarious opportunity to see just how much energy and persistence is packed into your kitten’s compact body!
Second, keep your kitty’s nails trimmed so that they are short and blunted at all times. Practicing this grooming routine every other week will remove the sharp points that have been making you an unwilling blood donor! The Cat Angel Network volunteers will clip your kitty’s nails free of charge any weekend at the Pottstown or Downingtown Petsmart stores. Watch closely and you will learn a few secrets that make nail clipping a cinch!
The climbing behavior that has Zelda trying to scale you and every other tall object in the house with her claws will gradually extinguish until, by about eight months of age, she will be able to jump everywhere she needs to go. Throughout her life, though, she will need to stretch and scratch at her tree substitute. What’s a tree substitute? It’s a nice, tall, sturdy scratching post or cat tree covered with deliciously rough sisal rope or natural bark, and every cat-friendly home needs one! Here she will do her isometric stretching after a nap, pulling off the old nail sheaths, and marking the post with her scent. Happy work for us kitties – it feels great and we will gladly stay away from your possessions when we have something so much better suited for our instinctual scratching needs
Lastly, NEVER allow the kitty to play with your bare hands as this will teach her that your hand is a plaything which, I assume you agree, it is not. Often the root cause of aggressive play in adult cats is that a person in the family thought it was cute to play roughly with the kitten, using his/her hands, sometimes even touching the cat’s sensitive underbelly. The kitten clamps down on the hand and thereafter views a person’s hands as something to be wary of and attack. Then when Aunt Tilly visits the home, she does not find this behavior cute at all and wonders why, oh why, you have such a mean cat. ‘Nuff said.
So, enjoy Zelda and let her teach you all the joys and wonders of living with a being who is only one small step away from the ways of the wild. By knowing and respecting her needs, and learning day by day how to work WITH them and not against them, you will see her predatory relationship with you disappear, and in its place will grow a deep and satisfying friendship between you, Zelda, and, hopefully, that second kitten we hope you’ll adopt.