How To Teach a Kitten Not to Scratch (the proper method)
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To teach a kitten not to scratch people, you must offer objects they can scratch and encourage safe scratching using positive reinforcement. Through cues, you can teach your kitten what is and isn’t acceptable to scratch.
It’s great that you’re researching how to teach your cat good behaviour when they’re a kitten.
Trying to correct behaviour when they’re an adult is much harder than building good habits from a young age.
After dealing with a previous cat who would try to bite and scratch most strangers who got to close too him, we vowed to teach our new cats what they could and couldn’t do.
Our two new kittens, Charlie and Arthur, couldn’t be more different.
Charlie is very high energy and definitely the Alpha male. He’s more defiant, assertive, demands lots of attention, and is usually the aggressor when play fighting with his brother.
Arthur is much more passive and docile, listens very well (but is still a kitten who’s learning, exploring, and testing limits), and is more low-energy and calm.
The fact that we’ve taught both kittens, with very different personalities, not to scratch or bite, tells me the technique outlined below is effective.
A cat’s claws come out when they’re trying to protect themselves or catch prey.
Although your cat may never need to hunt for their food and kill their prey, they have natural instincts to hunt and kill.
Humans can help cats engage their natural instincts in a healthy and safe way through play.
Your kitten will use their claws when they’re hunting feathers on the end of a wand and trying to catch it.
You may find your kitten scratches when they’re trying to play with you. This is innocent, but you want to teach them that their claws should not be out when they’re touching you.
If your kitten seems more aggressive when they’re scratching you, it may be that they feel threatened. Their ears may be back, fur standing up, they may even be growling.
This behaviour indicates your kitten is feeling protective, which will require very gentle training (suggestions are at the end of this article if you’re experiencing aggressive scratching).
2 – Create Cues
Kittens learn not to bite or scratch too hard through cues from their littermates and/or mom. If they scratch or hit with their claws out, the other cat might let out a high-pitch meow, bite or scratch back, or walk away.
This lets the kitten know that playing with their claws out is not okay.
On the other hand, if a kitten is playing properly and not biting too hard or scratching, the other cat will continue to engage in play, which is a reward.
You can also create cues to teach your kitten what is and isn’t appropriate.
Teach your cat “yes” cues and “no” cues.
Sounds, behaviour, and rewards can help communicate your cues.
Yes cues – loving and calm or excited and energetic tones when talking.
No cues – low, deep voice or a short, higher-pitch sound to communicate “ouch” to your kitten.
For example, when our kittens are playing with a toy, we use an excited tone to say “good job! Good boy Charlie!”. When they’re being gentle and cuddly, we speak to them in a soft voice and calm tone.
If a kitten gets playful when we’re petting them and uses their claws, we’ll say “nooooo” in a deeper more stern voice. Or we might say “ouch” in a higher pitch.
It only took one occasion for Arthur to learn he should not jump on my back and dig his claws in to climb it. I let out a genuine scream when he surprised me with his claws in my back (it really hurt). My scream startled him, but he learned not to do that again.
You don’t want to purposefully scare your cat. Just let them know their claws are unpleasant by emitting an unpleasant sound 😉
Yes cues – giving them attention and engaging with them
No cues – not giving them attention and walking away
For example, if a kitten is using their claws appropriately with a toy or scratching post, we’ll turn our attention to them (and tell them “good job”) and engage in play with them by moving a toy around.
If a kitten decides to bite or scratch inappropriately, we stop the behaviour with as little attention as possible and walk away. Meaning, if they scratched our hand, we wouldn’t pick them up and hold them while telling them “no”. We would gently remove them from our lap or away from us, then take our attention away.
Yes cues – a treat, petting, playtime, affection, attention, etc.
No cues – lack of any rewards; never punish a cat as they don’t learn through punishment. A punishment will often lead to more of the unwanted behaviour.
We don’t give our kittens many treats but our love, attention, and affection work as great rewards. We give them lots of attention during playtime and if they were to bite or scratch, we would simply tell them “no” and walk away.
3 – Plenty of playtime
Kittens have a lot of energy and need a lot of playtime. They have a natural instinct to play as a way to develop their self-defense and hunting skills, regardless of whether or not they’ll need them in life.
If you don’t give your kitten an outlet for playing, a time during which they can use their claws to scratch toys and scratching posts, their playful behaviour will come out in a way that’s less desirable to you.
They may scratch you in an attempt to get you to play, or scratch furniture.
Each cat is different, but generally, the younger the cat, the more playtime they need. Dedicate time to your cat for a play session each morning and night, at a minimum.
Let your cat communicate to you how long a play session needs to be. Keep playing with them until they walk away, lose interest in playing, or flop down when they run out of energy.
You should also have toys your cat can stay busy with when you can’t play with them. And of course, you should have several scratching posts throughout the home so they don’t feel the need to scratch your furniture, rugs, or carpet.
4 – Don’t use your hands for play
It’s tempting to use your hands to play with your kitten but this can teach them inappropriate behaviour. If a cat isn’t taught at a young age, the pressure they can use when biting or swatting at a human, they can hurt you.
Each cat is different, and if I’m being honest, we do use our hands and fingers to play with our kittens.
I share this not to contradict myself, but because I think it proves a point that you can teach a cat the difference between what they can and cannot bite and scratch.
We feel safe using our hands in a playful way with our cats because we taught them from a very young age what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to biting and using their claws with us.
If you’re adopting your cat later in its life, or your cat is a little more unpredictable, then it’s best to keep your hands out of playtime to avoid injury.
Our kittens do dig their claws and teeth into toys. But when we’re playing with them and they leap towards our moving hand they’re extremely gentle. This is why we feel safe moving our hands back and forth to get their attention. Our to gently tickle their tummies when they’re rolling around and being playful.
Use your discretion but I do think it’s important for kittens to learn what level of touch is okay with you/humans.
When our kittens were gently playing, it was a good time to be hands-on and play with them. We’re always very gentle when playing with them so I believe they learned to reciprocate gentle play back.
If a giant hand comes in and somewhat aggressively tackles a tiny kitten, they’re going to respond with a more aggressive bite or scratch.
When you do use your hands to play with your kitten, be more gentle than you think you should. Your kitten will most likely return the favor and gently paw back, without the use of their claws.
If they use their claws, use a cue (explained in #2) to teach them claws shouldn’t come out with humans.
5- Be consistent
Consistency is key when training a kitten. If you sometimes let them bite and scratch you because they’re little and it doesn’t hurt, they won’t learn the clear difference between right and wrong.
6 – Keep their nails trimmed
A scratch is bound to happen while your kitten learns. Although they’re tiny, kitten claws are sharp and can scratch the skin pretty good.
Keep your kitten’s claws trimmed so they’re duller.
It’s important to do this properly (never cut on or below the pink part of the nail).
Cutting your cat’s nails consistently will not only get them used to it, but it will also make them more comfortable with you touching their paws. We found this to be extremely helpful when dealing with our previous cat’s (Josh) diabetes. We often had to draw blood to get a blood glucose reading and a paw pad was the easiest and least painful way to do so. Josh didn’t even flinch when we grabbed a paw and pricked a pad to get a reading.
Dealing with aggressive scratching
If your kitten is more aggressive when scratching, they may be feeling threatened. In which case, the following tips will be more helpful.
Give them space
It can be scary for a tiny kitten to be adopted. They’re taken away from their mom, siblings, and the only environment they’ve ever known.
It’s important to set up a safe room for your kitten when you first bring them home, so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
This can be a spare room that has enough room for your kitten to run around and play, as well as have bedding, food, water, and a litter box, each several feet apart.
Create a calm environment
Your kitten’s fear and feeling the need to swat at you may not have anything to do with you. They may be feeling overstimulated by their environment.
Imagine you walked into a house full of scary sounds and objects, and unfamiliar smells. The people inside may be perfectly nice, but you’d have your guard up around them.
Everything is new to your kitten. And until they have time to check everything out and deem it as safe, they’re going to have their guard up.
Make it easier for them to feel relaxed in their surroundings by creating a calm environment.
Make yourself less intimidating
If your kitten seems scared of you, it’s important to give them their space until they feel more comfortable.
Be in the room with them but sit on the ground so you seem less intimidating.
Let them come to you without reaching out to pet them or pick them up. Just sit with your hand on the ground so they can walk up to it and sniff it.
You can even use toys and treats to help them let their guard down.