It is hard to resist a playful dog or cat, but sometimes a pet's exuberance gets out of control, and someone ends up getting hurt. A person should never receive an injury, no matter how minor, as a result of play between a person and an animal. Puppies and kittens are most likely to play too roughly, but the behavior can persist into or even develop in adulthood.
If you watch pets play with one another, it quickly becomes evident that roughhousing is the norm, particularly between young animals. However, behavior that involves biting and/or scratching, even when meant in a playful manner, should not be tolerated when a person is involved.
When a pet bites or scratches in play, forcefully and loudly say "no" or yell as if you've been hurt. Quickly remove yourself from the animal's vicinity and briefly ignore it. After all, animals want to play with people because it is fun and brings them attention. Removing the reward for a behavior will quickly bring about its end. Make sure to also praise play that is appropriate, whether it be a gentle touch with people or an "attack" that is directed towards a toy. Never hit, shake, hold down, or in any way try to punish rough play. Physical retaliation will be seen as continued play by the pet and simply encourage an even rougher response.
Do not be tempted to allow an animal to mouth or paw at people as long as they don't do it "too hard." Dogs and cats can easily learn that is never okay to bite or scratch a person, but subtle differences between what is acceptable and what is not are much harder for them to grasp. Also, while roughhousing may be tolerated by some people under certain circumstances, it will surely get a pet in trouble at other times. This type of disparity is very confusing and unsettling to animals. As long as all people in an animal's life consistently play by these same rules, most pets will quickly learn how to play appropriately with people.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008