Ouch! That hurt! Why, Kitty? Why are you biting me so hard? I fed you, cleaned your litter box and played with you today, so what gives? Cats, it turns out, bite for many reasons. Watch their body language for clues. There's almost always an explanation for the behavior.
Your cat may nibble on you now and again, but a sudden, angry bite is a shocker. If you master cat body language, you can avoid it. Flattened ears is a good early sign your cat is getting miffed. Watch for violent tail flicks or meows that turn into wails -- these are sure signals your cat is getting tired of being held or petted and may attack to get you to stop. A cat who's on the full offensive turns sideways, perpendicular to his target, or positions himself on his side, paws and claws in the air and ready. Give him some space and time to calm down.
All kittens play and roughhouse with their littermates. It's a form of feline socialization that peaks when cats are 7- to 14-weeks old. When a kitten bites his brother too hard, that brother will either retaliate or stop playing. Either way the kitten learns not to bite so hard. If a kitten is taken from his littermates too early, he never has the opportunity to learn when he's playing too roughly and biting too hard.
If your cat bites you in play, immediately stop playing. Don't physically punish him, though a hiss is OK. Redirect his biting to appropriate toys, not your hands or feet.
Biting the Hand That Feeds
Cats who are frightened may bite people to defend themselves or assert dominance. They often hiss, bare their teeth and crouch low to the ground. Their pupils dilate, they flatten their ears and their fur stands on end.
Don't console your cat if he has fear aggression toward people. He may interpret your calm voice and reassurance as approval of his bad behavior. Instead, work on retraining him. Give him treats when people are around and he doesn't flip out. Have the people -- one at a time -- move closer to him and give him a treat. Later, they may try to pet him with a brush and give him a treat. Finally, if all is going well, they can pet him by hand and give him a treat. Reward healthy, non-aggressive actions.
Sick as a Dog
A cat who bites without giving so much as a grunt or tail flick to indicate he was playing, angry or afraid may be ill. Cats with arthritis, dental disease, hyperthyroidism and a variety of central nervous system conditions often bite because they're in pain or confused. Hard biting is often associated with older cats, who have higher incidences of these conditions.
If your cat's biting you with absolutely no warning, take him to your veterinarian and have his health checked. Should the vet find your cat does have a health problem, she can offer recommendations on how to remedy it. With proper treatment, your cat will be happier, healthier and much less bite-y.
- Pergamon Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews: Neuropharmacology of Brain-Stimulation-Evoked Aggression
- Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine: Preventing Feline Behavior Problems
- UC Davis Veterinary Medicine: Preventing Behavior Problems
- Children's Hospital of Wisconsin: Treatment for Dog and Cat Bites and Scratches
- FamilyDoctor.org: Cat and Dog Bites
- Perfect Paws: Cat Aggressive Behavior
- Best Friends Animal Society: Socializing Very Shy or Fearful Cats
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images