Case Studies

Don’t Tease Please…

A young lady called Liz came to choose two kittens to replace her old cat, which had recently died.  She was still upset at the loss, although in her own words, her cat “had been vicious and always attacked anyone who came near her”. She had scratched and bitten all her friends and even her and her boyfriend, who loved her dearly.

I showed Liz a litter of young rescued tabby kittens, huddled together in the corner of a playpen.  They were shy but not aggressive and easy to handle.  Liz wiggled her fingers in front of their faces, teasing them and playfully hitting them with her fingertips.  The kittens immediately retaliated; they spat and lashed out scratching and biting Liz’s fingers.  Horrified I stopped Liz short.  What on earth was she doing?  Liz assured me that her old cat had loved these games; she and her boyfriend had always played with her like this for hours.  I explained that this was completely the wrong approach because, for a cat, playing is part of hunting and the purpose of hunting was the kill.  By offering her fingers as toys, Liz was actually provoking the cat’s ferocious instincts instead of stimulating an affectionate response.  Moreover, hitting the kittens was making them defensive and aggressive.  Liz was now concerned that meaning well, they had taught their previous cat to be a vicious pet?

Selene takes it out on her toy, rather than her owner's hand.

I told Liz of a similar experience I had with Mannie, my first ever cat. Mannie was a very gentle and affectionate domestic cat that I adopted at five months of age when my neighbours moved house without him. When he was about three years old I had to leave him for eight days in the care of my flatmate who was not a great animal lover but liked Mannie because of his sweet nature. On my return I was assured that she had done all she could to keep Mannie happy. Her new boyfriend had joined in, he had even taken his leather gloves out every day and played rough with him for half an hour – and he loved it! As Mannie came up to greet me, my hand was immediately and ferociously attacked. He certainly did love it – but I did not. My soft little soul mate had been turned into a monster and needed a stiff course of training to stop his new unsociable habits. Fortunately, Mannie still remembered the word “No!” from the early days when I had to stop him from approaching some of my visiting pupils, who did not like cats. This word – which we otherwise had to refer to as “the opposite of yes” – was now very handy. Even used very gently and in a friendly tone it had an immediate inhibiting effect on Mannie when he was about to attack me, and he soon returned to being his old affectionate self. Within two weeks he had completely lost his newly acquired aggression.


I showed Liz how to go about winning her new kittens’ confidence by stroking them gently and reassuringly and using a toy when she wanted to play with them, instead of her fingers.  Liz also promised to instruct her partner, although she anticipated that it might be quite a task.

If it is so easy to teach a friendly domestic cat or kitten the wrong attitude, how do we go about feral kittens, which, out of fear of humans, are most probably already hissing and spitting anyway when they are first taken in?  See our article on Taming Feral Kittens for more information .

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