Cats, with their independent yet affectionate nature, make wonderful companions. However, sometimes, they resort to an unexpected behaviour: biting. Cat bites can range from gentle nibbles to painful, aggressive bites. And they can seemingly come from nowhere, when you’re cuddling or playing one moment and being met with an attack the next!
Understanding why your cat bites is crucial for maintaining a loving and harmonious relationship with your feline friend. Often there are ways to avoid being bitten by your cat, and it starts with getting to know why they’re doing it and then finding a solution. Not all cats – and not all cat owners – are the same, but there are ways to build on your bond and speak each other’s language.
Today we’ll explore the various reasons behind cat biting, the types of biting, and provide practical advice on how to handle each situation.
Understanding Cat Biting Behaviour
Biting is a form of communication for cats. To address cat biting effectively, it’s essential to first distinguish between the different types: gentle, playful, and aggressive. Of course, it would be no use to treat a playful bite the same way you would react to an aggressive bite, as this will only confuse your cat and cause them to further act out.
Gentle Biting: Gentle nibbling is often a sign of affection. It’s your cat’s way of showing they feel comfortable with you. Gentle bites are light and usually accompanied by purring and a relaxed body posture. Some cats might even lick you to show affection. It’s typically harmless and enjoyable, like a loving caress from your cat. These types of bites shouldn’t be punished, as this could make your cat feel neglected and rejected by the person they trust most.
Playful Biting: Cats, especially kittens, engage in playful biting during interactive play. Playful bites are gentle but can become more enthusiastic. They are typically accompanied by other playful behaviours like pouncing and batting. They don’t mean to hurt you, but sometimes playful bites can become a little too much and accidents can happen. In this case, it’s essential to teach your cat appropriate boundaries and redirect their biting behaviour towards toys to avoid unintentional harm.
Aggressive Biting: Aggressive biting can be due to fear, pain, or territoriality. This type of biting is more severe and in extreme cases may require professional intervention. Aggressive bites are hard, painful, and often come with warning signs like hissing, growling, flattened ears, and dilated pupils. These bites are not to be taken lightly, and understanding the underlying cause is crucial. In most cases, you can make changes to the cat’s environment or your own behaviour to stop this type of biting, while punishment or yelling will make things worse.
Understanding these distinctions will help you respond appropriately when your cat bites. Responding to gentle nibbling with affection and redirecting playful biting towards toys can strengthen your bond with your cat. However, aggressive biting requires a different approach and potential professional guidance.
Let’s discuss seven reasons cats bite, and how to deal with each.
1. Fear-Induced Biting
One of the most common reasons for cat biting is fear. When cats feel threatened or cornered, biting becomes a form of self-defence. Signs of fear-induced biting include hissing, flattened ears, and dilated pupils. In these situations, your cat may feel that they have no other option but to defend themselves by biting.
What to Do: If your cat bites out of fear, the best approach is to give them space and time to calm down. Avoid approaching or petting them until they feel safe. Gradual desensitisation and positive reinforcement can help reduce fear-related biting in the long term. Slowly introduce them to the situation or object that triggered their fear, rewarding calm behaviour with treats and affection.
2. Pain-Related Biting
Cats may resort to biting when they’re in pain or discomfort. Biting becomes a way to communicate their distress, even if the source of pain isn’t obvious. It’s essential to recognise the signs of pain-related biting, which may include sudden changes in behaviour, increased sensitivity, or aggression during certain movements. It will most often happen when you pick up or stroke the cat and hit a sensitive area, causing them to show you via biting that you’re hurting them.
What to Do: If you suspect pain-related biting, consult your veterinarian immediately. They can diagnose and treat any underlying health issues, such as dental problems, arthritis, or injuries. In the meantime, handle your cat gently, avoiding sensitive areas, and provide a quiet and comfortable environment to aid their recovery.
3. Over Sensitivity or Overstimulation-Induced Biting
Cats often become overstimulated during petting or play. Overstimulation can trigger biting as a way to signal they’ve had enough. Signs of overstimulation include twitching tails, flattened ears, and restlessness. Often, cats will move away and clearly show you that they want you to stop patting, playing, or cuddling with them. You might think that you are doing something nice and patting them. So it can be a shock if they suddenly bite. Some cast only like to be touched on their head. Or only the head and the base of the tail. So if you are stocking their body they may bite to tell you to stop as it is too sensitive.
What to Do: It’s very important to pay attention to the signs they give you before they have to resort to aggression. Cats will most often use body language (such as the signs listed above) to communicate with you. Don’t wait for hisses and meows. If they show signs of overstimulation, stop petting or playing immediately. Allow your cat to calm down on their terms. Gradually, you can learn their tolerance levels and when to pause interactions before they become overstimulated.
4. Territorial Aggression
Territorial aggression can lead to biting, especially if your cat feels their space or resources are threatened. Cats may bite to establish dominance or protect their territory. Signs of territorial aggression include growling, hissing, and aggressive postures. This can often stem from a cat newly introduced to your household (or even a neighbouring cat encroaching on your cat’s space in the garden). Cat fights can sometimes be playful, so it’s important to notice when they’re dangerous and aggressive. Make sure your cats are safe and don’t get hurt when showing territorial aggression.
What to Do: Reduce territorial conflicts by providing separate resources (bowls, litter trays, etc.) for each cat in a multi-cat household. Use positive reinforcement to reward peaceful interactions between cats and create an enriched environment to reduce conflicts. The same goes for other animals, such as dogs, that the cat might feel threatened by. Make sure to reward good behaviour, but also give them their own space to feel safe in. If territorial aggression persists or escalates, consider consulting with a feline behaviourist or veterinarian for specialised guidance.
5. Redirected Aggression
Cats may exhibit redirected aggression when they are agitated by an external stimulus, such as seeing another cat outside the window or hearing unfamiliar sounds. Unable to confront the actual source of their frustration, they may lash out at the nearest available target, which unfortunately could be you.
What to Do: Avoid intervening directly when your cat is in this heightened state. Instead, remove them from the situation that triggered the aggression and provide a safe, quiet space for them to calm down. Address the underlying source of frustration, such as closing blinds to block the view of outdoor cats.
6. Play Aggression
Play aggression is common, especially in kittens. Cats use biting as part of their play, often testing their hunting skills and engaging in mock battles. However, play aggression can become problematic if not properly managed. Your cat might become too excited, overstimulated, or confused about the parameters of play and lash out aggressively.
What to Do: Encourage appropriate play by offering toys that mimic prey, like feather wands or interactive toys. When your cat bites during play, use toys instead of your hands. If the biting persists, teach them that play halts when they bite too hard. Consistency in training and positive reinforcement can help modify this behaviour.
7. Attention-Seeking Biting
Some cats resort to biting as a way to grab your attention. If they’ve learned that biting leads to immediate interaction, they may use it as a form of communication. Your cat might just be wanting pats and cuddles, but could also be signalling that they need something, like food and water. Make sure to pay attention to your cat’s needs so they don’t feel the need to bite.
What to Do: Avoid reinforcing this behaviour by not responding to biting. Instead, teach alternative ways for your cat to request attention, such as using a designated toy or vocalising. When they communicate without biting, reward them with affection and play.
My experiences of cat biting
- I have had some foster cats that will bite my toes in the morning to tell me they are hungry and it’s time to get up and feed them. I would have to have my toes covered with a blanket which was a bit hot in summer. Anyway, they obviously knew that biting my toes was the fastest way to get me out of bed lol.
- I had a foster cat that started to aggressively bite me on the ankles whenever I went near him. He needed a lot of attention in the way of play and cuddles and he also hated other cats. So the smell in my house was not to his liking. Luckily a couple with no other animals came along and adopted him and he has never bitten them.
Understanding the reasons behind cat biting is essential for fostering a healthy and harmonious relationship with your feline companion. Whether it’s gentle, playful, or aggressive biting, addressing each situation with the appropriate response is crucial.
By recognising the cause of the biting and responding accordingly, you can ensure a safe and loving environment for both you and your cat. Remember that patience, positive reinforcement, and, if necessary, professional guidance can help modify biting behaviour and strengthen the bond between you and your feline friend.
Are you looking to adopt a pet or donate to a pet rescue organisation? Georgie and Cindy from Large Hope SEO foster cats and kittens on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. If you’re local, get in touch to discuss adopting from the rescues. See cats and kittens available for adoption or donate so we can save more kittens.