Ouch! Cat bites can be very unpleasant and always best avoided. As natural skilled predators, cats have sharp teeth and a firm bite. A common question from pet owners is why their cat indulges in this behaviour towards their owner… and how they can avoid it! Bites from pet cats are not uncommon, but interestingly are often not a sign of true aggression. 

Let’s start by discussing some of the main scenarios in which cat owners are bitten and how to avoid known pitfalls. Most owners describe their cat’s behaviour as ‘unprovoked’. But there are often signs to watch out for, once you learn the subtle language of cats!

Kitten biting

Kittens are naturally playful and mischievous but are also budding hunters. A dangerous combination when it comes to nipping.

Play biting is very important in kitten development. Alongside learning how to communicate and play with their littermates and other cats, they are also acquiring vital hunting skills. Teething pain will also feature. This means there is a triple whammy of reasons for them to try out their teeth on any unsuspecting object… including you!

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However, that doesn’t mean you have to just let them bite! Never play games with your kitten that involves them chasing and biting at your fingers and toes. This is very common and although it may be cute and funny when your 10-week old kitten pounces and nibbles on your toes in bed. It’s not quite so fun with a grown cat when their adult teeth have emerged.

Kittens love to play by chasing, pouncing and biting, so make sure you have plenty of suitable toys for them to indulge this behaviour. Set aside time to play with them to make sure this strong need is fulfilled. 

Play biting

Although strongest in kittens, the need to play continues in adult cats. This is easy to forget and therefore easy not to indulge. Indoor cats especially, with no access to practice stalking and pouncing behaviours in the garden, may start using you, your furniture and your clothing as ‘prey’.

As innate predators due to their carnivorous diet, behaviours such as biting, clawing and pouncing come naturally to cats. Encouraging these play behaviours is a good thing to satisfy your cat’s needs. Cut care must be taken not to encourage aggression.

The easiest way to navigate this fine line is to have lots of suitable toys available. Also, make sure you take time for dedicated play sessions with your cat, but always allow them to ‘win’ before they get too frustrated. Let them catch and ‘kill’ the toy before they get so overstimulated that they may start biting anything that gets in their way. Remember, keep hands and feet well away and try to stop games before your cat gets too wound up.

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Sudden biting when petting

Most commonly described as ‘unprovoked biting’, this behaviour can be very upsetting. You are sat on your favourite chair, cat curled up purring on your lap as you gently stroke them… and them, wham! A vicious bite to the hand, seemingly out of nowhere. Understandably, this causes anxiety and concern amongst pet owners.

The first thing to emphasise is: don’t take it personally! This is just a form of communication from your cat, it is not intended as aggression in the true sense. It has been shown that repetitive petting of sensitive areas, such as the base of the tail in cats, can lead to overstimulation and ‘excitement’ effect in cats. Which can lead to adverse sudden behaviours such as biting. In essence, your cat is just telling you that they have had enough of the stroking, now. 

Although commonly described as being unprovoked, most cats will actually give some warning that they are reaching their petting threshold. These signs are often just quite subtle. It can be very peaceful and soothing to stroke your cat’s beautifully soft fur over and over, but it is worth keeping an eye on their reactions. Small signs such as a gentle swish of the tail or a flattening of the ears may give you the heads up that they are becoming overstimulated and may react negatively soon. Learning to read your cat’s body language is really useful here. Behaviour can be quite variable between cats so a bit of time observing your particular feline will be needed.

Love bites

Some cats may gently nibble or bite their owners as a sign of affection. It is thought to be reminiscent of how a mother cat will groom her kittens with small bites and is more common in cats who have had litters. This is not usually a problem form of biting. But if the mother cat is a little too enthusiastic in their efforts, gently removing yourself from their ministrations is usually sufficient to deter them.

Aggressive biting

The most concerning form of biting is the true aggressive, intentioned bite. Cat bites can be deep and serious, and often get infected due to the bacteria cats carry in their mouths. This form of biting is often accompanied by aggressive body language from the cat; this might include:

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  • hissing
  • spitting
  • defensive posturing, such as an arched back and fluffed tail. 

The best way to avoid aggressive bites from cats is to learn to read these warning signs and stop doing whatever pre-empted this reaction. Try and avoid situations which can cause defensive fear, such as trying to pull them off furniture or being cornered without an escape route. 

If you are bitten, wash the wound thoroughly and seek medical advice. Do not punish your cat; they use biting as an extreme form of communication when they feel they have no other option. They will not understand any punishment given, and in fact, it may only worsen certain behaviours. If your cat bites frequently, or you are struggling to recognise why, seek advice from a qualified feline behaviourist. 

Know your cat!

Hopefully, this post will have helped some understanding of why cats may bite, and how you can help prevent it. Remember to get to know your cat’s body language and preferences. Then provide plenty of suitable toys for them to play roughly with (not fingers or toes!).

Above all, remain consistent: allowing cute nibbles to your arm but shouting when they nip your ankles is confusing! Learn to read your cat, and give them consistency in return and your relationship will be strong, loving – and bite-free!

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