There are a lot of reasons cats bite– to communicate, to play, to show affection, as a sign of stress or illness, or as a result of overstimulation. As a cat parent it’s important to recognize and understand different biting behaviors so you can support your cat’s wellness and curb unwanted biting.
Ideally, kittens learn when not to bite as they’re socialized among other kittens and cats who won’t tolerate painful bites. Sometimes kittens are separated from their mother before they have a chance to learn acceptable behavior, so cat parents need to teach them boundaries for biting. Keep reading to learn about the most common reasons cats bite people, and how to stop your cat from biting inappropriately.
Cats Bite to Communicate
If your cat gently bites you while you’re petting them, this usually communicates “I’ve had enough.” Cats can get overstimulated by petting, and biting can be a sign of what’s called petting aggression: it means they need a break from petting and maybe some more space, too.
Each cat has a “petting threshold” – the point where they become overstimulated or uncomfortable. Before your cat bites, they display warning signs that they’re reaching their threshold: things like twitching, tail flicking, ears flattening back, or pupils dilating.
To stop petting aggression and biting, you need to learn your cat’s threshold warning signs and respect them. This might mean only petting their head and neck, or only petting them for a certain amount of time.
On the other hand, your cat might softly bite you to get your attention because they want you to pet them or play with them. If your cat bites your feet while you’re sleeping, it could be because your cat didn’t get enough attention during the day and they’re letting you know (or because your feet moving beneath the covers look like prey!)
In instances like these, biting to communicate is considered normal cat behavior. To reduce biting, pay attention to your cat’s body language, respect their boundaries, and provide plenty of cat enrichment activities and affection.
Cats Bite to Play
Cats have strong hunting instincts and they often act them out in play behavior. This is why so many cat toys are designed to mimic prey.
If your cat bites you while playing, it’s likely they’re just playing rough and didn’t mean to hurt you. Remember that if your cat didn’t learn biting boundaries as a kitten, they don’t understand how much their bites can hurt other creatures.
Play hunting explains why cats will sometimes bite your feet, ankles or legs out of nowhere when you walk by – predators have a natural instinct to go after moving things.
To discourage play biting, never use your hands to tempt or tease your cat – that’s asking for it. Your own behavior needs to teach your cat that hands and fingers aren’t toys. If your cat tries to bite you while playing, protect your hands and redirect your cat’s attention using a toy.
If your cat keeps on biting you while playing, stop playing in the very moment they bite you, and walk away. They’ll eventually learn that biting ends playtime and adjust their behavior.
Cats Bite to Show Affection
Some cat parents notice their cat has a tendency to nuzzle them, grab their hand, or hug their arm, followed by a gentle bite. That’s a love bite, and it’s a holdover from when they were a kitten, similar to the behavior displayed between mother cats and kittens. Love bites usually start with licking and lead to nibbling bites that don’t draw blood. If you’ve noticed that your cat bites you but no-one else, it could be an expression of affection.
But cats can also get jealous of your attention, which may be the case if your cat only bites you when you’re showing affection to another person or pet. In this situation the other person should spend some time with the cat on their own, which can make them appear less of a threat to the bond you share with your cat.
If you want to stop your cat’s love bites, you need to stop giving them attention the moment they bite you. Then reward them with your attention (and maybe a treat or catnip) when they’re not trying to bite.
Cats Bite When Stressed
Aggressive biting can be a sign of fear and anxiety in cats – it can also happen if a cat feels bored and frustrated.
Anxiety in cats can come from things like changes in routine, moving house, or a new person or animal joining the household. Cats can also bite out of fear if startled. Senior cats can experience fear if they are losing their sense of hearing, sight, or balance, or suffering from cognitive dysfunction. If you come home smelling like another cat or animal, this could also upset your cat and lead to biting.
If your cat is biting out of fear or anxiety, try to pinpoint and resolve the cause. You can also try acting calmer around your cat: if you are a naturally loud or energetic person prone to sudden movements or exaggerated gestures, your cat might respond better to a low-key approach.
What to Do if Your Cat Bites You
When your cat bites you, it’s on you as the cat parent to respond appropriately to ensure your own safety and your cat’s well-being.
If it’s aggressive biting:
Never yell or use physical punishment in any way – this will only make things worse and hurt your relationship with your cat.
The first thing you should do is rule out an underlying medical cause, especially if aggressive biting is out of character for your cat. Document exactly what happened before and after the bite to provide context for your veterinarian.
If the bite breaks your skin, wash with soap and water right away, and apply an antiseptic. Cats’ mouths have dangerous bacteria that can give you a serious infection, so monitor the area closely. If the bite is a true puncture and not just a surface-level wound, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
If it’s gentle biting:
Use consistent positive reinforcement with your cat so they can learn your boundaries around biting. Most non-aggressive biting stems from natural cat behavior, so depending on how your cat was socialized (or not) as a kitten, it might take some time to relearn behaviors.
How to Teach Your Cat to Stop Biting
Use these tips and techniques to train your cat to stop biting:
- Get everyone in your household on board with the plan. The training needs to be consistent, otherwise your cat will get mixed messages and it won’t be as effective.
- Don’t let your cat get in the habit of biting your clothes or shoes instead of you. Cats don’t understand the difference between “don’t bite my ankle” and “don’t bite the cuff of my jeans”, so this is part of maintaining a consistent message.
- Provide plenty of attention, affection, and playtime for your cat every day. Provide a variety of toys they can safely bite so they have an outlet for their natural biting instinct.
- Positive reinforcement is the gold standard for cat training. Reward your cat with praise, affection, or treats when they are well behaved. Clicker training can be helpful with positive reinforcement.
- Timing is key when training a cat. When your cat bites you, immediately withdraw your attention and leave the room. If you don’t do it in the moment, they won’t make the connection between biting and consequences.
- Desensitization and counterconditioning can help reduce fear and anxiety in cats – as long as you know what your cat is fearful of. Desensitization involves gradually exposing your cat to their source of anxiety in a controlled way to help them become less sensitive to it over time. Counterconditioning helps replace a negative response with a positive one by offering positive associations (like treats, affection, or catnip) in the presence of an anxiety trigger.
Training helps, but your best bet to stop your cat from biting is managing situations so your cat doesn’t have the opportunity to bite you—for example, by learning where their petting threshold is and stopping at the first warning sign.
Teach Children How to Be Around Cats
It’s perfectly normal for a cat to bite when it feels threatened. So it’s important to teach kids how to interact with your cat appropriately, and how to tell when it’s time to leave the cat alone. Don’t leave a child alone with your cat unless you’re confident they will both behave well.
The more you understand about your cat’s instinctive behaviors, the better your relationship will be! Learn more about how cats express themselves, with these five fascinating reasons why cats purr.
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