Ouch! Why Does My Cat Suddenly Bite Me?
You're petting your cat and she's making a bliss face, clearly loving it. Suddenly, she grabs your hand in her mouth. What just happened?
Cats have proximity issues, and they can get overstimulated fairly quickly. If you have a cat who swats and bites during friendly petting, you already know this. One minute she's asking to be petted and the next minute she's telling you to stop—now! This sudden switch is often the result of conflicting emotions. Many cats both love and hate to be touched. And which side of that conflict wins can change from moment to moment.
To avoid being bitten during what's supposed to be an affectionate petting session, learn what causes your cat to suddenly bite, what her body language means, and how to pet her safely.
Why Do Cats Bite?
There are many reasons cats bite, from love and affection to fear and frustration. While cat bites may all hurt the same on the human end, you can pay attention to your cat's body language and other clues to let you know what caused the sudden bite—and prevent it from happening again.
Compared to humans, cats have limited impulse control and emotional regulation, so they can get frustrated easily. Sources of frustration, like too much petting, can cause a cat to get upset. However, because cats don't have words to express their emotions, they need to tell you through their body language—which may include biting.
A frustrated cat often shows warning signs by holding their tail straight out, vocalizing, flicking her tail, or dilating her pupils. If you notice any of these warning signs, it's best to give her some space.
While cats may bite when they want less attention, some will also bite to demand more attention! If your kitten bites you and then runs over to a toy or bowl, she's probably trying to get you to play or give her a snack. If this is the case, it's best to discourage the biting behavior by avoiding the reward immediately after the biting. However, she's probably trying to get your attention for good reason—so make sure to give her enough playtime throughout the day and also provide her enriching activities to use when you're busy.
Biting is common for kittens while they play, so it's common to get a few gentle love bites from a cat who's just trying to have some fun. While it may seem cute as a kitten, you'll want to redirect this behavior onto cat toys so they don't continue to use your fingers, wrists, and ankles as toys into their adulthood.
Cats are also natural hunters and need stimulation to release their prey drive throughout the day. Without enough playtime or enriching toys, they may go searching for prey to attack in your home—which is often your ankles and feet.
The Right Way to Pet Your Cat
We all want to avoid being bitten, and luckily there is a right way to pet a cat that will lessen your chances of being nipped. Of course, there are cats who love to be petted forever, cats who can tolerate about five seconds of petting, and cats who fall somewhere in between. It's all about personal preferences. And honestly—people are like that, too! Some of us are very touchy-feely, some might be more hands-off, and countless others tend to fall somewhere in the middle.
Before petting a cat for the first time, always start slowly and introduce yourself. Let her sniff your hands and know you're not a threat before touching her. Most cats prefer to be gently petted on the head, neck, and chin, so those are the best starting points. And while we could all pet cats forever, if you don't know the cat well, it's best to stop petting after a few seconds to make sure they don't get too frustrated.
Get to know your own cat's preferences by paying close attention to their body language while petting them. Slowly try petting for longer periods of time and testing different spots. While most cats prefer you to stay away from their tummy, legs, and tails, all cats are different. Who knows? You may have a super affectionate belly rub lover on your hands!
How To Tell if Your Cat Is About To Bite
Because cats often suddenly bite out of frustration, it's important to learn their body language clues before a bite. Each cat has their own ways of saying, "I've had enough," or "Don't touch me there." Sometimes they just move away. Sometimes it's more subtle, like a whisper.
Some feline versions of "I've had enough" look or sound like this:
- She may vocalize (other than purring).
- Her ears may go back, sideways, or flat.
- She may start to flick or lash her tail.
- Her skin may twitch.
- Her pupils may dilate or look like slits.
- Her claws may come out.
- Her whiskers may come forward.
- Her legs or shoulders may become stiff.
- She may look at your hand.
- She may raise her paw.
If you don't heed these whispers, your cat has to shout—with a hiss, swat, or bite.
To learn your cat's signal for I've had enough, pet her gently only when you can look right at her—not when you're watching TV or talking on the phone. Watch for even the slightest change in your cat. As soon as you see it, stop petting. If you're not sure, stop petting anyway.
Remember to Respect Your Cat's Preferences
What should you do if you can't figure out what your cat's body language is saying about her boundaries? Earn her trust. Just pet the cat twice and take your hands away. If she decides to stay next to you, wait a few minutes and then pet her twice again. Leave her wanting more. When she sees that you're not going to overload her, she'll relax and you can gradually work up to a few more strokes.
When you learn your cat's personal preferences and respect them, something very wonderful happens: She starts to allow more petting. She knows you will stop as soon as she asks, so she feels less ambivalent about it. She knows she doesn't have to resort to biting to get her point across, that you will honor smaller, more subtle signals. And that teaches her that you are a trustworthy person.
It's important to remember that companion animals have a right to decide when they want to be touched, where they want to be touched, and how long they want to be touched. Our cats want to be assured that we will respect their boundaries. When we do, there's no need for biting.
A previous version of this article including reporting by Beth Adelman, MS.