Why Do Cats Bite and How Can You Train Them Not To?
Mouthing, biting, and pawing are part of the normal repertoire of cat and kitten play. When with their litter, kittens start to stalk and pounce on their littermates and mother from as young as three weeks old. Predatory play continues as kittens grow, but it is important that they learn to control their biting and scratching when playing with humans.
Biting outside of predatory play can be a defensive behaviour and may indicate that your cat is afraid or in pain. It is important to identify the reason your cat or kitten is biting you to enable you to find ways of preventing it.
Why do cats bite?
Rough and tumble play, which often includes biting, is a normal part of kitten development. Play often uses the same skills that a kitten might need in later life such as stalking, pouncing, biting, and kicking. Rough and tumble play also builds bonds between animals and can allow growing kittens to gauge each other’s strength – which can avoid damaging physical disputes over resources such as food.
During play with their mother and littermates, kittens learn to control the force of their bites and may paw without unsheathing their claws. Kittens that are rehomed early may miss out on this important learning experience and will need to be taught about appropriate play by their new humans.
Kittens chew on objects, including people and their clothes, as part of exploring their new environment, and when teething. It is important to provide safe objects for them to chew during exploration and teething and to redirect them from chewing on clothing, fingers, and toes.
Kittens can learn to nip or paw at people to get their attention! Kittens may also bite defensively (if they object to handling or grooming), as well as when they are in pain.
Adult cats are most likely to bite people as part of play when they don’t have an outlet for hunting behaviour, or if they are unhappy about being handled. If your cat bites you, think carefully about the circumstances surrounding the situation to find the cause – and hopefully a cure.
If your cat stalks you before pouncing and biting this is either a display of hunting behaviour, or unwanted rough play. Biting can also occur accidentally when you are playing together with a toy as they might grab your hand instead of the toy.
More serious cat bites are inflicted by cats who feel threatened, for example when their owners try to catch them and box them for a trip to the vet! In these situations, the owner has often had to chase the cat first, so the cat is aroused and in ‘flight or fight’ mode. Bites can also occur when trying to break up a cat fight or rescue a cat from a dangerous situation as the cat might not recognise the human as a helper.
Usually docile cats can bite if they are in pain during grooming, petting, or handling. If it is unusual for your cat to hiss, growl, or bite during handling a trip to the vet is strongly advised.
Cats sometimes learn to bite to stop unwanted behaviour from their owners, such as grooming. If soft bites are ignored, the cat may resort to a harder bite. Some cats have a tolerance threshold for grooming or stroking and may appear to switch from enjoying the interaction to biting in an instant.
Cats do not bite without a reason, and they will have given other indicators that they are unhappy before resorting to a bite. Cat owners need to learn to read their cat’s body language to avoid bites, as well as training their cat to avoid situations where the cat may feel stressed and lash out.
Signs of a stressed cat
Most aggressive cat bites come out of fear and stress and are the final resort for a cat who has tried to communicate their feelings with a person and not been heard. When handling your cat look for changes in their face, eyes, ear, body, and tail which could indicate a change in their mood.
A relaxed cat has a soft expression, ears pricked forwards, and eyes which may be closed, or half closed. They may lie curled up or stretched out (but don’t be tempted to stroke that belly!). The tail may be up, out, or low, but will be relaxed and may sway gently.
The stressed cat will have a tighter looking face with either narrowed or wide eyes and they might stare intently. The ears are often pinned back against the head and the tail may be bushed out, twitching, or lashing. Some cats start to twitch their skin when they are uncomfortable with a situation and their body becomes tense. On the move they crouch or slink along, often with the tail tucked under.
Did you know cats have developed vocalisations just to communicate with humans?! Purring is usually associated with a contented cat, and if a cat being stroked stops purring you should stop stroking. However, stressed cats or those in pain can also purr to self soothe so it is vital to pay attention to the whole cat.
Cats who approach with a tail up and ‘chirrup’ sounds are usually happy to interact – though let them approach you. Unhappy cats may let out low growls and rather guttural meows as a warning. Stillness and silence indicate a cat who is fearful and inhibiting their behaviour, rather than a cat who is happy with what you are doing.
How to train your cat not to bite
Biting during play and biting during handling are two different areas of training for your cat. Never use aggression or force when training your cat or kitten. Training must be consistent and should involve everyone who cares for your cat.
Do not use your hands as a toy with your kitten. Although the bites and scratches of an 8-week-old kitten will do little damage, the bites and scratches of a 5 kg adult cat can. Treat clothing as an extension of your body and do not encourage biting of clothes.
Toys that cats like are often those that mimic prey: small, furry or feathery, and which ‘run away’. Choose interactive toys which can be kept away from your hands such as toys on a fishing pole or feeding toys which don’t need your close involvement. Balls are popular as they roll away when the cat pounces on them and toys which dispense treats can tempt a less playful cat to get involved.
Rotate the available toys every few days to prevent your cat from getting bored. When actively playing with your cat keep the sessions short. If your cat becomes over-aroused during play, end the game by walking away. Over-arousal can be spotted by watching for large pupils, pinned ears, and harder bites.
If you make a mistake and your cat bites you, do not pull your hand away as this might cause further injury and the cat to bite harder. Instead, push towards the cat or offer an alternative toy to catch hold of.
Biting During Handling
Reward based training can make handling and grooming less stressful for everyone. Wanted behaviours can be marked with a clicker and rewarded with food, and then put on a cue word. Tasty treats can be used to lure your cat off the sofa, or into their cat carrier.
Cat training sessions should be very short, and you will need to experiment to find a treat they find rewarding. Build up the length of time you can stroke or groom slowly and allow the cat to end the session by walking away. The same techniques can be used to teach ‘sit’, ‘come’, and even taking medications.
The cat carrier is a common source of anxiety for cats as it means a trip to the vet or cattery. If you are able to have your cat carrier out in the home, allow your cat to use it as a den so that the stress of transport is reduced. You should simply be able to wait for them to go in before closing the door. No chasing and cornering required!
If your cat is in pain or you need to handle them in an emergency, protect yourself from scratches and bites by wrapping them in a large thick towel or blanket. Remember that after emergency handling you will need to rebuild trust with your cat slowly.
When bringing a new kitten or cat into your home, or when travelling to the vet, stress can be reduced by using pheromones. Beaphar Cat Comfort Calming Spray contains a copy of the naturally produced cat facial pheromone, which reassures your cat that they are in a safe place. There are also pheromones which make handlers less threatening to a cat and reduce unwanted territorial marking.
What to do if you get bitten by a cat
If you are bitten or scratched by a cat, wash the wound immediately under clean running water. If there are bites which puncture the skin, cover with a clean dressing, and seek medical advice from NHS 111.
Cat bite wound infections are common due to the presence of bacteria such as Pasteurella multocida in the feline mouth. Up to 75% of cat bites will become infected, so it is important to seek medical advice as soon as you are bitten. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and should check that your tetanus cover is in date.
Rabies is not a concern in the UK, but if bitten by an unvaccinated cat in a country where rabies is present you will need emergency treatment to prevent infection.
Cat scratch fever is a very rare condition caused by Bartonella henselae. Symptoms include bumps near the wound, swollen lymph nodes, lethargy, and aching joints.
If there is any swelling, pain, or discharge from a cat bite, or if you feel generally unwell, seek medical attention.
What to do if after training your cat continues to show aggressive behaviour
If there is no obvious cause for your cat’s aggressive behaviour and there is no improvement when you introduce appropriate play, calming pheromones and handling training, or if your cat becomes suddenly aggressive, you should seek help.
Cats that show aggression should see a vet to identify any issues which may be causing pain, or medical problems which can lead to anxiety such as an overactive thyroid. Cats can be very good at hiding pain and a thorough examination and blood test may be required. If your cat is given the health ‘all clear’, consult a feline behaviourist who can assess the problem and suggest solutions based on positive emotions and improving your cat’s emotional state.
Do you need further advice?
If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.