Oww! My
bit me!
Owww My cat bit me! What do I do?
copyright (c) 2021 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
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 comm-
unicate 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:

  • We have to be very careful with cats to avoid punishment (including  
    spraying with water bottles, shaking cans full of rocks, scolding, abusive
    tones or language or physical force of any kind) 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.

  • 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.  

    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 thump-
    ing 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.

  • 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.  Where "oww" has become
    meaningless - you say it and the cat keeps going and so do you,
    try a sharp intake of breath and remember the next steps count.
    Use one short sharp syllable and no movement –providing feed-
    back 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 feedback is so  effective at
    getting them to stop the behavior.  Your reaction will startle the cat,
    remember 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.

Key to remember:  When we take away punishment we are not just modifying
the cat's behavior we are modifying our own. That can take some mental stretch-
ing for us, especially with biting or scratching, when we are asked to provide
feedback on the action and mark/note and reinforce the moment it stops or
pauses. We have to remind ourselves we are reinforcing the stopping and not
rewarding the biting or scratching. And to remember that scolding or lecturing
or more are not words and gestures cats can benefit from and that mostly what
they do is put an animal further and further into a position where they have to
be defensive and fearful. They will never, ever understand that you are telling
them what they did was wrong and why, only that you are threatening and
hurting them.  

I ask not to use the word "No" because body language is powerful and "No" is a
loaded word for us. "Owww" is better depending on how you say it and for some
cats and in some situations, when we use "owww" or any word without the
marking and reinforcing it loses meaning. A gasp or short intake of breath and
pause can also be truly effective as feedback especially when we follow with
marking the exact moment the cat stops/pauses with a "Thanks" or "Yes" (for
stopping/pausing -remember?) add in a stroke behind the ear. If the biting/
scratching has been happening for awhile we have to do this for awhile too.

    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.

    This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link
    to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You
    may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document
    without permission of the author. Email inquiries to info@animalbehaviorist.us
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
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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
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