Why Do Cats Bite?

Mychelle Blake
Scottish fold cat biting

It's not always easy to pinpoint why cats bite because there are numerous reasons why a cat may strike out at a person, fellow pet, or an article of clothing or furniture. You really have to go back and think about what was happening just prior to when the bite occurred. Some cats are more prone to this habit than others, so your main concern should really focus on the frequency and severity of the biting.

Why Do Cats Bite?

Cats can bite for a variety of reasons that range from fear to frustration to play. Because cats are our loving companions, it's easy to forget they are descended from wild cats that depended on many behaviors for survival and particularly defense. These instincts still exist in domesticated cats even if to a lesser extent.

Fear Biting Strangers

Which types of behavior threaten the common domestic kitty and lead to biting? An unknown house guest with a penchant for petting cats is often a primary target.

  • Although many cats enjoy being petted, the majority of these animals prefer to be petted by someone they trust, and it can take quite a while for a cat to adjust to strangers.
  • Unfortunately, some humans who enter a household and spot a cat are so confident in their trustworthy nature that they fail to grant that cat an adjustment period.
  • Any seemingly friendly attempts to stroke this adorable feline will be met with hostility and, at worst, biting.
  • If you have a cat that is not comfortable meeting new people, allow him a chance to meet strangers when he's comfortable and do not force interactions. Make sure your guests do not crowd your cat and make him feel threatened enough that he needs to defend himself.

Redirected Fear or Anxiety

Some felines are particularly anxiety prone, and although they love their masters dearly, anything from a car alarm to a vacuum cleaner may induce attack mode. This can be a real challenge for pet owners since cat bites can be more than petty nips to your hands or body.

  • Unfortunately, in these cases, a cat is relying on its inborn instincts and such behavior can be difficult to suppress.
  • Cats cannot reason with the same capacity as humans, so when you have a feline that is extremely anxious, it is an easier solution for you to control the stress-inducing aspects of its environment than to change the cat's behavior.
  • You can also try to work on a plan to desensitize your cat to the scary thing by working with a professional animal behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist.

Petting Aggression

Curiously enough, cats will actually bite their beloved owners, even after a very satisfying petting session. This action can be a complete surprise to the unwitting owner since kitty seemed purringly contented only a few minutes ago.

  • In this case, the cat is communicating that the petting session is over. Most cats do not want to harm their owners, but biting is merely a signal for "enough is enough."
  • Make a plan to observe your cat's body language carefully to see when your cat is ready to tell you to stop.
    • Some of these signs include a tensing of their body muscles, dilated pupils, agitated tail movements and the appearance of their claws.
    • Some cats may also growl, hiss or make other noises right before they bite.
  • You can also try redirecting your cat when you see he's about to bite by waving a toy that he likes to distract him. You can also end your petting sessions with play time to "interrupt" the cycle of petting, cuddling and then biting.
  • Pay attention also to where you are petting them. Many cats are more sensitive in the section around their tails and can quickly become overstimulated there. Focus instead on their face, head, neck and shoulders.

Pain and Medical Conditions

Some cats may bite because they're in pain and are not happy to be handled or petted when they already feel uncomfortable.

  • Cats with arthritis or other joint conditions can definitely not enjoy being picked up certain ways and may let you know with a bite.
  • Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome is a rare condition where petting a cat can become suddenly painful and lead to a cat lashing out to stop the pain.
  • If you have a cat that has always enjoyed cuddling that starts biting out of the blue, schedule him for a veterinary checkup right away to see if something is causing him pain.

Play Biting

Cats also bite as a form of play. Kittens love to gnaw on people, siblings and just about anything that can be taken for "play prey."

  • If you have ever owned a small kitten, you're probably familiar with how kittens may play-attack your hands or even your feet.
  • Your kitten does not know that its sharp claws and teeth can be incredibly painful weapons. Instead, he believes that your attempts to guard your hands or victimized feet are simply part of the game.
  • If your adult cat play bites, this is likely reminiscent of its youth and he was not taught to stop doing this behavior.
  • For both kitten and adult cats that play bite, use a similar tactic to handling petting aggression by engaging the cat with toys before they are about to bite. Toys that are best for this are wand toys or toys you can toss for them to chase.
  • Avoid roughhousing with your kitten and redirect biting behavior to a toy so he learns that biting you is not going to happen.
  • Always reinforce your cat positively for doing another preferred behavior and avoid punishment as this can lead to a fear biting problem instead of a play biting one.

Dealing With a Biting Cat

If these biting fits become severe and result in serious injuries, it is time to call a veterinarian. Some extreme fits of aggression may be symptomatic of a neurological disease or an underlying illness or serious behavior problem.

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Why Do Cats Bite?