Whether it’s because of fear, pain, or frustration, understand why your cat bites, and learn how to put an end to this unpleasant tendency.

By Sarah Hodgson
August 24, 2020
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If you love a cat with a consistent biting habit, I feel for you. Aggression is rough on individuals of every species. Before you take your cat’s reactions too personally, however, consider their worldview. While some kittens wrestle, pounce, and bite people gently, mature cats generally bite for three reasons: They’re afraid or in pain, frustrated, or predatory. 

If your cat bites and holds on or suddenly bites you unprovoked, give your veterinarian a call to make sure there is nothing physically wrong with your feline. 

If there isn’t a medical reason for your cat’s biting, consider other ways you and your cat may be getting your wires crossed. Cat body language can sometimes be misleading, especially to dog lovers. Did you know cats wag their tail when they’re aggravated and may purr when annoyed

To be a good cat parent, learn how to read your cat’s body language and interpret her feelings. Your compassion for her perspective will go a long way in helping them to feel secure. Cats who feel in control of and safe in their surroundings are less likely to attack.  

Why Does My Cat Bite? 

Cat aggression falls into four categories. Generally speaking, cats bite out of playfulness (especially young cats), fear or pain, frustration, or predatory impulses. 

Young Cat Playfulness

Biting is a routine play behavior that begins with kittens at 12 weeks and extends through their first year. These mock-fights teach them hunting skills as well as adult communication skills—rough play is their way of testing the limits. In their litter, they mock-fight with their littermates, yet still, curl up together to seek comfort. Living in your home, kittens seek to identify people as nurturers or playmates. If they see you as a fellow kitten, they will be more likely to bite during play and to offer gentle or “love bites” during interaction and affection.

Fear or Pain

Cats who are fearful or in pain may bite if their body language and warning vocalizations are ignored. A lot of different things can cause this level of emotional upheaval in your cat, including startling them from a nap, clipping their nails, a stranger entering the room, or overstimulation from petting. 

Ingrid Johnson, CCBC and director of Fundamentally Feline in Georgia, explains, “People don’t know how to pet cats. They’re tactile sensitive and can be easily overstimulated. They prefer petting to be localized to preferred areas on the head, neck, chin, and cheeks—not so much down the spine.” She adds that overweight cats are more prone to biting. “When an overweight cat can no longer groom their hard-to-reach places … they react swiftly when touched in these areas.”  

Frustration

Like children, cats’ emotional regulation and impulse control is limited. Plenty of things can cause frustration in your cat, like being trapped inside watching a prey animal just beyond reach or seeing another animal posturing offensively just outside a window or door. Instead of communicating with words, however, your cat conveys their emotions through body language. 

A cat’s vocabulary is a subtle interplay of tail, ear, eye, and body movements. A frustrated cat might pace and become hyper-focused on the object of their frustration. If the feeling mounts and becomes anger, they will hold their tail straight out, flatten their ears back, and bristle their hair. Understanding when your cat is displaying frustration can help you adjust your interactions with them at that time. 

Predatory Instincts

Cats are expert hunters, no training necessary. Of course you may not have much need for these skills, but don’t tell your cat. Unless you redirect your cat to predatory toys or he’s raised with a sibling who’ll be the best partner for predatory play, don’t be too surprised when your cat attacks your hands. Or ambushes you as you shuffle through the kitchen in your bunny slippers. 

Chris Winsor / Getty

How Can I Stop My Cat from Biting?  

As a cat parent, it’s your role to help your cat regulate intense emotions and take care of their everyday needs. Respond to each of these situations like a nurturing mama cat, not an equally immature kitten. 

Young Cat Play Biting

“At 12 weeks of age, kittens are refining their grabbing, biting, and predation skills,” says Sally Foote, DVM, of Foote & Friends in Illinois. “Rubbing tummies, grabbing feet or tails [are actions that] will entice the kitten to grab at [your] hands in retaliation and bite. So no feet or hand-rubbing play—that turns into nips and bites,” she says. 

Remind yourself you are not your kitten’s equal. If your cat is using your hand like a prey animal, let it go limp and stare off in the opposite direction. They won’t engage your hand if it’s “dead.” When they relent, stand up and walk away for a minimum of 30 seconds, then return to redirect their energies to an appropriate toy.

Don’t discipline your kitten for biting. If you swat at or shove a kitten for what is, to them, a normal play-bite interaction, they will view your reaction as mock fighting. This can lead to aggressive interactive play, or worse, an outright fear of you. Then, as your kitten matures, the bites will become more serious. “Hand play will later create a cat who bites at any hands trying to examine their mouth or administer oral medication,” Foote says.

Defensive Aggression (Reactions to Fear or Pain)

Regardless of your cat's age, if there is a sudden uptick in their defensiveness, call your veterinarian. Like the rest of us, your cat will become short-tempered when sick or injured.

If there’s no underlying medical cause, consider what else might trigger the biting. Could there be a change in your lifestyle that might be putting the sour in his puss? Does someone in your household repeatedly violate his personal space? All cats should have a private space, cat tree, or cozy nook where they can go to be left alone. Tell friends and family members to respect the cat’s spaces. When you approach him, shake a treat cup and walk towards him sideways. A face-to-face approach is often considered confrontational and will only intensify his hostility.  

Clicker training may also help you stop your cat from biting out of defensiveness. When you approach your cat, use a clicker to alert them a treat is coming. Reward their interest with a high-value treat. 

Offensive Aggression (Reactions to Frustration)

Cat frustration is like human anger. If you live in a multi-cat household, interfering in a spat between cats may cause displaced aggression. Jane Ehrlich, ACBC and director of Cattitude Behavior consulting in Arizona, says, “Frustration can be caused by a situation where your cat is intent on a distraction they can’t reach, like another cat milling outside your window, or bird flying by just out of reach.” 

While your instinct may be to lift your cat out of a frustrating situation, don’t do it. You can block your cat’s focus by putting a board between them and the distraction, or cast a handful of high-value treats on the floor to see if you can shift their focus. As a last resort, make a loud noise, preferably out of their line of sight, to break their attention as you calmly guide them from the source of the aggression. 

Predatory Instincts

Johnson advises that cat parents always adopt in pairs when possible to give cats an outlet for predatory play. The best approach for remedying these behaviors, short of getting another cat, is to redirect them with a toy. Feather flyers, predatory play poles, and kick pillows work best. If your kitten or cat attacks your legs as you move about or pounces on you in your sleep, dab yourself or the bedsheets with a non-toxic odor they disdain, like cinnamon, citrus, or rosemary. 

What Other Steps Can I Try? 

Cats act good when they feel good, so if your cat is biting, ask yourself why. Consider the various reasons a cat might bite and your role in the interaction. “Cats want to avoid confrontation and bite defensively, not offensively,” Ehrlich says. As a cat parent, putting yourself in their paws and validating their experience might lead you to a solution that has more to do with modifying your behavior than solving any “problem” your cat might be suffering from. 

If you need help there is plenty to be found. There are cat behavior consultants like myself who can coach you virtually, many of whom use webcams and virtual video exchanges to support your journey. Certified veterinary behaviorists and associate cat behaviorists can be consulted, especially when medication might be necessary.