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From Lap Cat to Wildcat - What to Do When Your Cat Bites

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to stop your cat from biting

Story at-a-glance -

  • If your cat tends to bite, you’re not alone; aggression tops the list of feline behavior problems according to a study of cat parents
  • It’s important to visit your veterinarian to ensure your cat’s aggressive behavior isn’t the result of an underlying health problem
  • If your kitty’s aggression is play-related, it’s important to interact with her more often, take steps to increase her physical activity level, and stimulate her natural feline instincts
  • The best way to manage petting-related aggression is to learn how to tell when kitty has had enough, and immediately give him some space
  • If your cat bites you, it’s important to seek medical attention — cat bites can be just as serious as dog bites

Has this ever happened to you? You're gently stroking your beloved cat. She's purring contentedly. Then in the blink of an eye, she goes from lap cat to wildcat. Her eyes become slits, her tail twitches wildly, and her ears flatten against her head. Based on past experience, you know she's about to bring the pain. So, what do you do?

Don't do this — Don't yell at her, or worse, hit her or become aggressive towards her. Harsh treatment may not stop what's about to happen, and it may make things worse both short and long term. Even in the face of her hostility toward you, it's important not to inflict emotional or physical damage on your cat.

No matter how painful or upsetting it is when a pet draws blood (more about this shortly), please don't respond with physical punishment of any kind — not even a tap on the nose. All you'll accomplish is to inflict pain on your cat, cause her to fear and avoid you, and perhaps even increase her aggressiveness.

Instead, do this — Calmly remove yourself from the immediate area. Give kitty some space and time to chill out. If you're holding her, stop what you're doing, stand up if you're seated, and let her drop gently to the ground. If you're standing, bend forward from the waist and release her either to the floor or onto a piece of furniture. Increasing your grip on a cat about to show aggression, even when your only intent is to lower her from your lap or arms to the floor, can intensify the situation.

If it makes you feel any better, you're in good company (lots of company). Feisty feline family members are far more common than you might think.

Aggression Tops the List in Cats With Behavior Problems

A 2009 retrospective study covered an 8-year period and 336 cats with behavior problems.1 The group included 178 females and 158 males, the majority of which were spayed or neutered. All the kitties lived with families who had rescued them as strays or acquired them from shelters, breeders, or pet stores. The mean age at which the cats developed behavior problems was 4.5 years.

Study results showed that nearly half (47%) of cat parents listed aggression as the primary behavior problem. Inappropriate elimination came in second at 39 percent. Other findings from the study:

  • Of the aggressive kitties, 64% directed their hostility toward other cats and 36% toward people
  • Of the cats who were people-aggressive, 78% targeted their owner
  • The cats who showed aggression toward people did so most often during play (43%) or when they were being petted (40%)
  • Play-related aggression toward owners was more common in homes with a single cat
  • Indoor-only cats and intact females were more aggressive than spayed females

The study authors suggested that cats who lack other outlets for play-related aggression may direct it toward humans. They also observed that petting-related aggression is most often the result of owners not knowing how to read their cat's subtle "I've had enough" signals. In fact, in my experience, many to most instances of aggression with indoor housecats occur because their humans aren't understanding or interpreting their cats' communication correctly long before the aggression begins.

Is Your Cat's Behavior Masking an Underlying Health Problem?

The first thing I recommend when dealing with an aggressive cat is to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems that could be affecting his behavior. Felines are experts at masking pain. There are also some disorders (e.g., hyperthyroidism and hyperesthesia) that can have a dramatic effect on behavior.

If your veterinarian gives your kitty a clean bill of health, you can reasonably assume his aggressive tendencies are behavioral in nature. The next step is to figure out the trigger(s) for his aggression toward you. Very often, it's either play or petting related.

Managing Play-Related Aggression

Play-related aggression is fairly common in kittens and young cats. Hiding under the bed, for example, and taking swipes at your feet or ankles as you walk by can be a highly amusing pastime for a healthy young kitty. Another fun game is to "stalk" and pounce on your toes under the bedclothes.

Kittens raised with littermates learn to control biting and scratching as part of their socialization to other cats. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties, and those without appropriate play outlets. The behavior can continue into adulthood and is most often seen in single cat households where kitty is home alone all day.

One way to curb aggressive play behavior is to increase the amount of time you spend interacting with your cat each day. Make sure to keep an assortment of toys on hand that your kitty responds to and make it a point to engage him with a favorite toy for short periods several times each day. Playing with toys (and not directly with an aggressive cat) is one of the best ways to positively enhance your relationship.

The interactive toys you select should keep your cat a minimum of an arm's length from you to limit his ability to sink his claws or teeth into you. Approach him calmly and speak in soothing tones. Playtime should be fun and challenging, but not rough or loud. Rough play is inappropriate with cats, especially feisty ones.

Provide plenty of feline-friendly scratching surfaces, climbing poles and perches around your home so your cat can exercise his natural need to scratch, stretch, climb and escape to an elevated resting spot.

For more great tips on how to enrich your kitty's environment and increase his daily activity level, read Signs Your Cat Is Bored Silly and You'd Better Do Something About It Fast. Providing safe, outdoor exposure via a catio is one of the best calming things you can do for an agitated cat.

Recognizing Petting-Related Aggression

If your cat displays aggression while you're petting her, it can be really confusing. This is especially true if your kitty came to you seeking attention, but then suddenly turned on you. There's an explanation for the behavior that may make you feel a little better. Some cats, for reasons we have yet to uncover, have a built-in "petting limit." In other words, they have a low tolerance for being touched by human hands. When your kitty reaches her petting limit, she's probably displaying body language to tip you off.

For example, she may tense up. She may flatten her ears to her head, twitch her tail, or try to wriggle out of your grip. She may even let out a growl. However your cat shows displeasure, chances are she's showing it before she takes a swipe at you. The trick is to learn to recognize her "I've had enough" body language and let her go at the first sign.

It's also not a good idea to restrain your cat while petting her. In general, it's always best to let kitty come to you. Cats like to feel in control of their environment. They want interactions on their terms. Uninvited touching and handling is not a good way to bond with your feline companion.

The more you let your cat make her own choices, the more often you might find her jumping into your lap. And even when she's in your lap, she may not want a lot of petting, so tune in to her body language. Some cats are just cuddlier than others.

Why You Should Never Ignore a Cat Bite

Cat bites can be just as dangerous to your health as dog bites. As you've surely noticed, your kitty has sharp teeth that can easily puncture your soft human skin, transferring bacteria from the cat's mouth into your body.

A 2014 Mayo Clinic study looked at 193 patients who saw a doctor or went to an emergency room for a cat bite on the hand or wrist (common locations for cat bites and also prone to infection) over a two-year period.2 About one third of this group ended up being admitted to the hospital for infection or other problems related to their cat bite injury.

Of the 193 patients, 36 were immediately admitted to the hospital, 154 were given antibiotics and sent home, and three received no treatment. Most of those sent home with antibiotics were treated successfully (86%), but 21 ultimately had to be hospitalized. The average hospital stay was a little over three days.

Twelve of the 21 patients who were later hospitalized, and 26 of those immediately hospitalized underwent procedures to flush out the wound or surgically remove infected tissue. Eight required more surgery. Longer-term complications from infected cat bite wounds included abscesses and loss of joint mobility. People with bites directly over the wrist or joints were more likely to be hospitalized than people with soft tissue bites.

Although this was a relatively small study that looked at data that was not always uniform, the take-home message is that while cat bites often look minor, both patients and doctors should take them seriously. This is especially true when there is swelling or inflammation at the location of the bite.