Nip, Gnaw, Bite, Chew

August 28, 2013

We’ve all been there: your new puppy Fido Junior is 12 weeks old, and constantly biting anything he can get into his mouth. Your hands are scratched, your ankles are raw, your sneakers have seen better days and your table legs look like a beaver attacked them. Take a deep breath! Teething behavior in puppies and kittens, while incredibly annoying and sometimes destructive, is entirely normal.

Like human babies, puppies and kittens have a set of deciduous (baby) teeth, all of which will fall out and be replaced by adult teeth. (Often these deciduous teeth are swallowed by Junior, so you may never find one.) By 6 months of age, cats and dogs should have completely erupted their permanent adult teeth. Molars and premolars are the first to erupt, followed by incisors, and last the canine teeth. Teething behavior does seem to abruptly escalate from 12-20 weeks of age and this is when Junior may gnaw on everything in sight.

What to do when Junior is driving you crazy, and your children are afraid to touch their new pet land shark? The first order of business is to try and redirect Junior’s attention away from your hand and onto an appropriate chew toy. Rubber bones, treat-filled toys such as Kongs, rope toys, rawhides and stuffed animals (provided Junior doesn’t tear them to shreds and ingest the material) are all appropriate items on which puppies can chew. As a rule, avoid any bones or toys that are hard plastic or actual bone, as these can fracture teeth. Also ensure the chew toy is something Junior can’t dismantle and ingest; this could result in a gastric or intestinal foreign body.

If Junior is fixated on biting your hand or foot and cannot be easily re-directed, the next step is to stand up and turn your back to him. Ignore the heck out of Junior until he has calmed down and is behaving appropriately. What Junior wants from you is attention; even yelling “no” or “stop it” is still attention, and this will not discourage your puppy from an undesired behavior. The final step if Junior is a crazed biting beast is to leave the room altogether, and not re-engage or interact with him until he has completely calmed down.

In general, when training dogs and cats, it is essential to reward good behavior when it occurs and ignore bad behavior. Negative reinforcement such as yelling, hitting or punishment via confinement is not effective and often creates fear or anxiety in your pet. If Junior is calmly laying on his bed, chewing a toy, you can praise and reward him with a treat. If he is a biting lunatic, then employ some of the tactics described above.

The final recommendation to extinguish overzealous biting behavior is to exercise Junior and tire him out. This same advice can be applied to virtually any behavioral problem in cats and dogs. Tired pets are well-behaved pets! Run Fido Junior outside or play fetch until he doesn’t return the ball. For Fluffy Junior, have her chase a feather or crinkle balls thrown down the stairs.

Good news! Even if Junior’s biting has you doubtful about ever owning another dog, know that the vast majority of puppies and kittens will not continue chewing and nipping behavior into adulthood, especially if the behavior is discouraged early. Some dogs remain destructive even as adults (and that’s another blog post entirely) but most outgrow it when the adult teeth are fully erupted. Take a deep breath…there is a light at the end of the teething tunnel.