Oww! My cat
bit me!
Why your cat bites and what to do about it (c) 2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen
all rights reserved  

Cats bite as part of a normal set of behaviors whether it is in play or defensively.  These
behaviors do not happen in a vacuum, they are responses to another’s action or
interactions.  When it comes to cats biting other cats the messages being sent are often
loud and clear but when it comes to cats biting humans we need to first look more
closely to what is happening in order to address it for the cats and the humans.

Along with other four legged animals, cats and dogs do not have hands to hold or touch
things with and use their mouths.   Mouths when used to touch things may be used to
explore, groom (oneself or others), and communicate.  (The mouth is also used to eat,
vocalize, sniff-taste or “flehmen”.)  When a cat uses the mouth to communicate
through biting the question is what is this cat saying and in response to what? Animal
Behavior experts Daniela Ramos and Daniel Simon Mills studied cat aggression directed
at humans in the Sao Paulo region of Brazil and found that the top two reasons for
owners reporting aggression were after some cats were “petted or put on to the lap”
followed by “when playing.”  While it is important to know when to pay greater
attention to what humans are doing with cats to avoid biting, the difficulty with this
study and others is that “aggression” is not defined so we may be talking about
warning behaviors such as hissing up to and including biting.

A separate study published in May of 2017 by the
Journal of Feline Medical Surgery
compared the behaviors, including inappropriate elimination, excessive grooming and
aggression, of cats that had been declawed compared to cats that not been declawed.
the declawed cats significantly demonstrated more of these behaviors.  63% of the
declawed cats were found to have bone fragments left in their digits, these cats were
more likely to have back pain, inappropriate elimination, biting and aggression.  
Declawed cats without retained bone fragments were found to have increased biting
and inappropriate elimination.

We do know that cats like all animals will use a host of behaviors to communicate what
they are feeling including positive and negative emotions along with intent.  Paying
attention to what your cat is saying along with what you are doing will lessen negative
experiences for you both.  More on what to do when petting and playing and what to do
when it goes wrong:

  • When it comes to petting cats or picking them up, being mindful of how cats
    interact with each other and the most appropriate way to handle them is kinder
    to cats and us.  For petting, use the approach cats use when greeting each other
    confining your stroking to along the sides of the muzzle, behind the ears and
    between them.  This is the safest most neutral approach (see what this looks like
    here).  Several studies have been done confirming that while some cats may like
    petting at the base of the tail they are in the minority.  When picking up cats,
    remember that cats have a “righting” reflex so turning them upside down as
    you would a baby is highly stressful and will cause them to struggle..

  • When it comes to playing with your cat, remember to do it.  Conduct regular
    interactive play sessions with your cat where the object of play is a fishing wand
    toy and not your hands or your feet.  Experiment with different types to see
    which your cat likes best and remember to drag the object across or away from
    your cat's line of vision to engage your cat in predatory play behavior.  Make a
    practice of 5 minute sessions in the morning and in the evening. We all can do 5
    minutes, no excuses.  Regular play will also relieve your cat of needing to ask
    you for play and interaction by jumping out at you, chasing you or you offering
    your hands as toys.

  • Become familiar with what your cat is “saying.”  A cat that is tail thumping or
    swishing, looking away, holding ears back, rigid, muscles rippling, hissing,
    growling or yowling is adamantly asking for whatever is going on in an
    interaction to stop.  These sorts of behaviors are called “distance increasing
    behaviors” because they are exactly that.  Cats like most animals go through a
    whole set of communicative behaviors as requests and warnings, they never
    "just" do anything.   Routinely ignoring a cat's requests can cause a highly
    stressed cat to skip steps in asking for something to stop.  When you see a cat
    asking for space, give it to them.

is the person’s fault and not the cats.  The cat should be released and the person needs to
learn how to hold and pet correctly so the cat does not have to defend themselves
again.  If there is a history of petting or holding incorrectly, the cat will remember.  
Taking baby steps in approaching your cat sideways and offering tentative pets can
start kitty on the road to trust.

  • If a cat bites in play (which humans are going to retrain with interactive play),
    immediately, meaning at the exact moment of contact say “Oww!” and hold
    still.  Use one short sharp syllable and no movement –providing feedback and
    taking the fun out of the chase. The key here is timing, the second you feel the
    bite use the response above and the very millisecond the cat stops use a softer
    voice in praise to reinforce the cessation and keep the encounter positive.  Cats
    are extremely sound sensitive due to their exquisite hearing and do not like loud
    or discordant noises which is why the correction is so effective at getting them to
    stop the behavior.  Your reaction will startle the cat, in that very second when
    the cat pauses immediately say “Good kitty” in a soft voice and stroke along the
    side of the muzzle to reinforce that stopping the bite is the wanted behavior.  
    That's it, do not lecture the cat the afterwards as this only confuses a cat for
    doing what you asked for.

We have to be very careful with cats to avoid punishment as it stresses them and
teaches only that they should be fearful of us.  Using the appropriate feedback carefully
employed with the correct timing and reinforced with praise for the correct response
can be truly helpful.  Teaching cats what we do want changes behavior, understanding
what their behavior means teaches us.

Ellis S.L.H., Thompson H., Guijaro C., Zulch, H. E. (2015) The influence of body region, handler
familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat’s response to being stroked.
Applied Animal
Behaviour Science
; 173: 60-67.

Martell-Moran, N.K., Solan M., Townshend H.G.G. (2017). Pain and adverse behavior in dewclawed cats.
Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, (published online May 2017)

Ramos, D., Mills, D.S. (2009).  Human directed aggression in Brazilian domestic cats: owner reported
prevalence, context and risk factors.  
Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11: 835-841

Soennichsen, S., Chamove, A.S. (2002) Responses of cats to petting by humans.
(copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen) This cat is yawning not preparing to
bite.  Note the relaxed body position, neutral carriage of the ears and
raised tail, indicating ease.
"When it comes to cats biting other
cats the messages being sent are
often loud and clear but when it
comes to cats biting humans we
need to first look more closely to
what is happening in order to
address it for the cats and the
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Ask me for a consultation
(Elizabeth Albert Flckr)  This is not how to hold a cat.  Learning
how to hold and pet cats is safer and kinder for everyone.
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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