Cats are natural predators who bite on instinct, but there are situations in which certain cats learn to bite as well. One of the most common reasons for pet parents to seek a cat behaviorist is for aggression toward themselves or other pets.
Understanding the natural reasons behind why cats bite can help us humans in preventing and perhaps decreasing this behavior in the future.
Why Do Cats Bite?
There are several natural reasons that cats bite. Cats are very social creatures but prefer to hunt alone. Cats bite when hunting in order to capture and kill their prey. In fact, cats are one of the few animals that hunt even when they are not hungry.
Cats also bite when they perceive a threat or have a high level of fear and are unable to flee. This is a normal, instinctual behavior in order to protect themselves. Cats experiencing this level of fear demonstrate their fear in other ways such as hissing, growling, ears going flat, swatting, and spitting.
But not all biting is part of a cat’s instinctual prey drive or brought on by fear. Biting is also a natural part of play between cats. This type of biting should never result in wounds or injury. Cats mark their own scent on objects in their environment. On occasion, when marking a human with their cheek, cats may bite lightly. These behaviors are all learned from a very early age through interactions with cats and sometimes humans.
Why Do Cats Bite Their Owners?
There are several reasons that cats may bite their owners.
Frustration or Fear
Sometimes pet parents do things to their cats that they do not like. For example, a pet parent picks up his/her cat, but she does not like to be picked up. When she is trying to get away but cannot or she is feeling afraid, kitty may bite. This is a normal behavior in response to fear.
Cats hide symptoms of pain very well. Even when pet parents do not recognize that their cat is in pain, kitty may bite from the discomfort. Over 90 percent of cats that are 12 years old and older develop painful arthritis. Dental disease can be very painful and may lead to biting.
Some cats will bite to signal they have had enough petting. Sometimes this is due to overstimulation where the cat is in a state of high arousal due to prolonged petting or play. It could be due to pain but does not have to be.
In some cases, a cat will perceive a threat and remain in a hypervigilant or state of hyperarousal—meaning her adrenaline is pumping and she is feeling panicked or super excited. A pet parent (or sometimes other cats) may cross paths with this cat, and she bites him/her. The hardest part about identifying this type of aggression is knowing ahead of time that the cat is overly aroused.
On occasion, a cat will bite a pet parent that creates conflict between them. For example, if a cat jumps onto the counter and the pet parent tries to “shoo” her off of the counter, she may bite. Cats naturally appreciate being in control of their environments and interactions, and this may be related to creating a sense of controlling the situation. Keep in mind that punishing your cat for biting in these circumstances will make this behavior much worse.
Understanding Play Biting in Cats
Cats are very social creatures and, from approximately 3 weeks of age until 16 weeks, they engage in social play with both cats and humans that will shape their interactions for the rest of their lives.
Biting is a natural part of play, and with appropriate social play with other cats, cats learn bite inhibition. Bite inhibition means that cats learn how hard they can bite without causing injury. It would be inappropriate for a bite to break skin and cause injury when the cat is intending to play.
While play biting is normal and expected between cats that play, many pet parents accidentally encourage this behavior between themselves and their cats causing bites. These bites can be very mild including barely feeling a play bite or painful resulting in red marks on the skin.
Play aggression occurs in cats that were never properly socialized as kittens during the crucial social play period and is one of the most common causes of aggression to people. If cats did not learn appropriate play with other cats, they are unlikely to have learned bite inhibition and will bite pet parents very hard in an attempt to play. These bites can even break skin and create small wounds. Kitty may even claw her pet parent, having never learned how to sheathe (put away) her claws. These bites often occur on feet, legs, hands, or arms.
Pet parents should stop all play biting—it should not be encouraged or allowed at any time. Play biting could lead to firmer and firmer bites that eventually cause harm to the pet parent.
Cat parents are encouraged to:
- Play daily with their cat to ensure kitty is getting enough play and attention, and atleast twice daily if the cat is less than a year old.
- Use wand toys or other items that keep hands far away from the cat during play.
- If a bite occurs, immediately stop the interaction. Slowly remove whatever appendage was scratched or bit from the situation, and slowly leave the area to signal you are done with play. Most of the time, kitty is very aroused and will need a distraction to stop play—have a small, favored toy on hand to toss away from you when ending play.
- Give 1 or 2 treats to kitty after a great play session that did not involve any bites.
- Never punish your cat for biting—no physical or vocal punishment. This can create fear and decrease the bond between the pet parent and cat.
Remember to stop play and walk away whenever a cat is interacting with you in an inappropriate way.
Is There Such A Thing As a Cat Love Bite?
Cats are very scent motivated and often mark their own scent on objects in their environment to decrease their stress and indicate their territory. Marking is typically done by rubbing the cheek, chin, or tail base against an item repeatedly. On occasion, some cats that are very involved in marking a human with their cheek may bite lightly. Pet parents often describe that the cat “mouthed” them or that they felt the graze of teeth.
These soft bites during times of marking are typically called “love bites.” Cats that mark by rubbing are often content and when interacting with their pet parents may be purring, trilling, tail vibrating, eyes partially closed or demonstrating other cues that kitty is very pleased with the interaction. These gentle bites do not need to be stopped necessarily but they should also not be encouraged. Pet parents that are used to these gentle bites may be startled and upset if their cat suddenly bites harder. While these bites do not often progress to injury, it is possible. If a cat begins gently biting, it would be best to calmly and slowly walk away from kitty to avoid any mishaps.
What to Do If Your Cat Is Biting
If your cat is biting you, it can be quite upsetting. Sometimes the bites are painful but do not cause wounds, and other times it can result in wounds that can become infected.
The first thing to do with your cat is make an appointment with the veterinarian. Keep a daily log of the when the bites occur and record the day’s events. Were there any visitors that day? Did your routine change? Was there anything different about the environment, including a shipment of packages or construction noise outside?
The reason to make an appointment with your veterinarian is to immediately rule out medical causes. If your cat is approximately 7 years of age or older, or the behavior has suddenly started occurring, medical causes are quite common. Remember, cats hide symptoms of pain and discomfort—so issues such as chronic bladder inflammation, painful dental disease, and arthritis can lead to sudden changes in behavior and increased bites to pet parents. If your veterinarian does not find a medical cause, he/she will offer tips to try at home or refer you to a cat behavior specialist if there is aggression occurring.
The best solution to all biting is prevention. If your cat bites you during petting, find other ways to interact with your cat without petting or stick to very few (3 or less) pets for every interaction. If your cat bites you every time you pick her up, do not pick her up.
Behavior modification is the practice of recognizing unwanted behaviors like biting and modifying them. Modifying behavior never involves punishment of any kind. Instead, cat parents can work on the following:
Meet Your Cat’s Natural Needs
Your cat should have access to scratching that is both vertical and horizontal. Cat trees can provide an area for scratching and climbing. A variety of play toys should always be available and changed out at least weekly. Fresh water should be available at all times. Food should NOT be available at all times—cats are used to hunting their food in smaller quantities throughout the day. Litter boxes should be large enough for your cat to comfortably turn around and dig in with soft substrate. Cats need places to hide, and higher-up places to climb.
Increase Your Cat’s Enrichment
Cats need a lot of variety and excitement in their environment to meet their behavioral needs. Play should be daily and never involve hands or very small toys that could result in bites to hands. Think of all your cat’s senses—taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Does your cat have a new sensory experience every day? Try food puzzles at mealtimes, play cat-friendly videos on a computer or TV, or leave out a paper bag for your cat to rustle in.
Reward Welcome Behavior
Have treats handy. If your cat uses the cat scratcher instead of your armchair, immediately give kitty a treat!
Redirect Your Cat’s Biting When Possible
If your cat is focused on your feet every time you sit in your office chair, place a few treats or favorite small toys near the office chair that you can calmly reach for. Toss treats or small toys away from you to distract your cat to chase something else and avoid the situation which may lead to bites. If she is sitting on your lap and kitty is biting you, slowly stand up so that kitty has to jump down on her own instead of you needing to lift her.