Why do cats bite people, and how can you reduce feline aggression?
If you’ve ever wondered why your cat bites you out of nowhere, you’re not alone! While some cats may bite out of aggression, this isn’t usually the case when they give you a small nibble or nick. But if you’re worried that the habit is becoming a bit too common, read on. With the help of clinical animal behaviourist Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection, we look at why kittens and adult cats may bite – and how to stop a cat biting people.
Understanding biting in kittens
She may appear cute, but your kitten is also a born predator and starts honing her hunting instincts from a few weeks of age. So be careful when playing with your young cats: ‘People often make the mistake of letting their kitten bite their fingers and toes,’ says Nicky. ‘A few months later the kitten has adult teeth and a stronger bite, and what was a fun game isn’t fun any more. So start as you mean to go on, and redirect biting behaviour onto appropriate toys.’
Nicky explains that kittens are stimulated by movement and can learn three styles of hunting by interacting with their mum and siblings:
- catching something moving along the floor (like a mouse)
- catching something fluttering (like a moth)
- clasping something between front paws and teeth while ‘bunny kicking’ it with hind legs (like a rabbit).
Provide toys that offer all three types of play, such as a wind-up mouse, a fishing rod with feathers, and a catnip kick-bag. As well as diverting attention from your fingers and toes, each type gives your cat an enjoyable endorphin rush.
‘Long-handled fishing-rod toys are a great option for kids who want to play at a safe distance from an excitable cat,’ says Nicky. ‘Make sure you store them safely, though, as they pose a strangulation hazard.’
Your kitten should stay with her mother until she is at least eight weeks old. She’ll learn important life skills from her mum and siblings, including ‘bite inhibition’ – how to reduce the force of her bite during play. Cats who don't develop bite inhibition in kittenhood may struggle to learn it later on.
Why does my cat keep biting me?
‘The most common medical reason for an adult cat to bite is pain,’ says Nicky. ‘Cats are masters of masking when they’re sick or injured.’ If your cat bites out of nowhere, take her to the vet to check for medical problems. Keep a diary of your cat’s biting behaviour, and give the vet a full history.
When it comes to personality, cats aren’t, well, catty. ‘People often mistake fearful or anxious behaviour for anger and think their cat’s being spiteful, which isn’t the case,’ says Nicky. ‘While cats share some human emotions, including fear, anxiety and frustration, they don’t bear malice or experience jealousy like we do. A cat who starts biting when a new baby or partner arrives is anxious about the change, not jealous of the new arrival.’
Another myth is that cats bite to assert dominance. ‘Although cats in the wild might compete for resources, they don't battle for dominance,’ Nicky explains. ‘So don’t think you need to be “top dog” over your cat.’
If you’re baffled by your cat’s biting, consider whether it could be redirected aggression. When a cat becomes agitated – perhaps on seeing another cat outside the window – their cortisol level can remain raised for an hour or two. This may result in aggressive behaviour, apparently out of the blue.
Owners often ask: ‘Why does my cat bite me during petting or grooming?’ Cats generally groom one another in short, frequent bursts. People tend to interact less often, but for longer and with more intensity, so a nip is your cat’s way of saying ‘that’s enough’.
Occasionally cats bite for attention, although they’re more likely to miaow or paw you when they want something. An attention-seeking bite is usually a painless mouthing, without the body language (flattened ears, thumping tail) of an aggressive bite.
How should I deal with my cat’s biting?
Firstly, keep everyone in the household safe. Cats carry potentially harmful bacteria in their mouths, so always seek medical attention for cat bites to avoid the risk of infection.
‘Cats don’t understand right and wrong,’ says Nicky. ‘Never tell your cat off or punish her for biting. She won’t understand, and it can be detrimental to the cat-owner bond.’
Instead, Nicky suggests giving your cat coping mechanisms so she’s less likely to display aggressive behaviour. As well as toys for biting, provide safe places around the home where your cat can retreat undisturbed when frightened or stressed.
If you can’t work out how to stop cat biting, and a vet has ruled out medical problems, seek a referral to a certified behaviourist (your Petplan insurance may help to cover the fees), and work together to banish the biting.
Do you have any tips on dealing with biting or aggression in cats? Share them with us on our Facebook page or on Instagram by using the hashtag #PethoodStories.