Why your cat bites and what to do about it (c) 2017-2018 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 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 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. 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 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
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. Anthrozoos;15:258–265.
(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,
"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.
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