You've got questions, we've got answers. We're taking some of the most commonly asked questions about feline behavior and chatting with Dr. Mikel Delgado, certified applied animal behaviorist, to give you the answers you need.
You might be enjoying a little petting session with your cat when CHOMP! Your cat plunges her teeth into your flesh. OUCH! Or perhaps your cat is chasing your ankles and treating you like a giant bird she would like to catch and kill. Why can cats be so sweet and then turn and bite you so quickly? What can we do to help our ferocious felines turn into tame tabbies?
There are a few common reasons that cats bite, and I’ll tell you how to avoid some of the most common ones. If your cat has recently started biting out of the blue, that change in behavior could be caused by pain or discomfort, which is why a veterinary visit is really important when dealing with a personality change or sudden-onset aggression, especially if your cat has also started showing other signs of stress, such as hissing, growling, hiding, or changes in appetite.
Young cats often bite and scratch their owners because they are full of energy that reflects their predatory nature; we call this playful or predatory aggression. In the wild, young cats must learn to hunt to survive; the best way to hone those skills is to practice! A kitten or young cat will pretty much go for anything that moves - whether it’s your feet or a bird. Most of us don’t have too many birds in our houses, but we do have moving body parts that are very tempting! This type of aggression tends to be very silent - not a lot of hissing or meowing...usually just silent sneak attacks.
Many cats also get irritated with too much petting, or with handling to particular areas of their bodies. Overstimulation is your cat’s way of telling you they have had enough. Cats have incredibly sensitive hair follicles that send messages about touch to their brain. At some point, touch can become unpleasant, and that is when overstimulation happens. Most cats give warning signs of the irritation - such as a head turn, a swishing tail, a cranky meow, or by tensing their muscles. If these warnings are not heeded, your cat may resort to a bite or swat to say ENOUGH!
Cats may bite or scratch when they are afraid. A cat who feels cornered will do whatever they can to protect themself, including bite and scratch.
Cats may also bite for reasons that may not have anything to do with you! Sometimes a cat becomes upset by something they see outside -- such as another cat. They can also get upset if they hear a scary sound. These sights and sounds can put them on full alert - leading them to become defensive and take out these feelings on whoever is nearest. Although uncommon, redirected aggression can be serious and even scary, especially because the victim does not always realize what is happening.
If you are experiencing serious concerns with your cat, I strongly encourage you to get professional help. But in many cases, there are simple things you can do to prevent your cat from biting and scratching.
- Provide your cat with a safe, enriched environment, including hiding spaces such as cubbies
- Play with your cat with interactive toys -- at least 1-2 times a day, but more frequently if your cat is younger and is showing signs of playful/predatory aggression
- Never use your body parts as a toy - no wrestling or chase games
- Pet your cat gently, and in areas that MOST CATS tend to enjoy handling. Research has shown that most cats like petting on the head and cheek areas. Below the neck is off-limits or irritating for many cats, so it’s important to learn what YOUR cat likes and respect their boundaries (some cats do actually enjoy belly rubs, while for other cats, it’s a recipe for disaster!).
- If your cat is feeling wound up or playful, do NOT pet them. We know from epidemiological studies that most cat bites occur when people are handling their cat, and sometimes the best way to not get bitten is to give your cat a break from petting.
- Don’t force a cat out of hiding. A cat who is panicked will do what they have to to escape.
- If your cat is upset by outside cats, you may have to cover windows or use humane deterrents to keep cats out of your yard.
If your cat bites you, try to stay calm. Do not yell or punish your cat - you might make them more excited or more fearful - and in either case, your cat may bite harder. Calmly withdraw your hand (or foot) and leave the room, closing the door behind you. The purpose is to help your cat learn that if they bite, you will withdraw all attention. But I always encourage clients to focus on PREVENTION!
[#BeginTLDR#] Many cats also get irritated with too much petting, or with handling to particular areas of their bodies. Overstimulation is your cat’s way of telling you they have had enough. [#SplitTLDR#] Cats may also bite for reasons that may not have anything to do with you! [#SplitTLDR#] If your cat is feeling wound up or playful, do NOT pet them. We know from epidemiological studies that most cat bites occur when people are handling their cat, and sometimes the best way to not get bitten is to give your cat a break from petting.