Oww! My
bit me!
Why your cat bites and what to do about it (c) 2017-2019 Frania Shelley-Grielen
all rights reserved  

“My cat bit me, what do I do?" 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 both 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 de-clawed compared to cats that not been de-clawed. The
de-clawed cats significantly demonstrated more of these behaviors.  63% of the de-clawed
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.  De-clawed cats without
retained bone fragments, were found to have increased biting and inappropriate

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 the ears  This is the safest and most feline friendly approach.  
    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.  

    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.  When you see a cat asking for space,
    give it to them.  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.  

  • If a cat is biting defensively due to being petted or held incorrectly it 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 proper pets
    can start kitty on the road to trust.

    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.
Cats use their mouths to explore, touch, groom, carry, etc.
(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 humans."
Cats are well aware of what each other is saying
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Ask me for a consultation
This is not how to hold a cat
(Elizabeth Albert Flckr)  This is not how to hold
a cat.  Learning how to hold and pet
cats is safer and kinder for everyone.
Frania Shelley-Grielen is AnimalBehaviorist.us
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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We have to be very careful with cats to avoid punishment as it greatly 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.
Anthrozoos; 15:258–265.

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