The Surprising Facts About Cat Bites

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

why does my cat bite me

Story at-a-glance

  • Most cat bites are the result of miscommunication between owner and pet; cat bites can become infected, so it’s important to seek medical advice if the bite punctures your skin
  • To avoid unnecessary stress on your cat that can result in bites, it’s important to learn about feline behaviors and body language so you can better understand what your kitty is trying to “say” to you and respond accordingly
  • There are certain things cat guardians should avoid doing to help their pet feel secure and in control of their environment; one example: don’t force interactions — allow your cat to interact with you on his own terms

Many of the unfortunate incidents that occur between humans and their animal companions, including when a pet bites an owner, are the result of miscommunication (more about this shortly). And while dog bites tend to get more attention, cat bites can be just as serious. Feline teeth are sharp, after all, and can easily break human skin, potentially transferring oral bacteria from the cat's mouth into the human's body.

A 2014 study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, found that 30% of cat bite patients required a hospital stay.1 Researchers reviewed the records of 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 prone to infection) over a two-year period. About one third were 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. People with bites directly over the wrist or joints were more likely to be hospitalized than people with soft tissue bites.

Longer-term complications from infected cat bite wounds included abscesses and loss of joint mobility. The take home message: if a cat bites you, don't wait until you think you might be having a problem, see a doctor.

Interpreting Your Cat's Behavior and Body Language

If you've ever been stunned to suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of your own kitty's sharp little fangs, it probably didn't happen "out of the blue" from your cat's perspective. Felines tend to display certain behavioral signals when they're feeling uncomfortable or threatened, and it's up to us to pick up on those signals and respond in ways that reduce their stress before they feel the need to strike out with either their claws or their mouth.

Your feline family member's behavior and body language provide a window into her mood and comfort level from moment to moment, and your ability to "read" your cat and respond appropriately can prevent bites and bad feelings all around.

Most cats bite their humans only after they've sent multiple unheeded "please stop that immediately" signals. From kitty's point of view, she's let you know, repeatedly, that you're doing something to or with her that is stressful or scary. Since you seem to be ignoring her, you leave her no choice but to strike out at you.

Once you learn to recognize the following behavioral cues, you'll be equipped to interrupt the sequence of events that ends with you being bitten:

Body Part How It Looks What It Means
Tail
  • Vertical, tense, with fur standing on end
  • Held very low or tucked between legs
  • Jerking back and forth
  • Angry or frightened
  • Insecure, anxious, fearful
  • Not happy and potentially aggressive
Ears
  • Erect and turned so the opening points to the side
  • Flattened, tipped backward or sideways
  • Irritable, stressed, potentially aggressive
  • Fearful, frightened, irritable, stressed
Eyes
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slightly dilated pupils
  • Fully dilated pupils
  • Either content, or on the offensive and could become aggressive
  • Feeling nervous and/or submissive
  • Either defensively aggressive, or aroused and feeling playful
Back
  • Arched with fur standing on end
  • Lying on back growling and visibly upset
  • Kitty is very fearful and defensively aggressive
  • Prepare to be scratched or bitten

Other clear signs of an agitated cat are hissing and growling. All of these signals are letting you know to back off; it's our job to observe, listen and respond appropriately.

Improving Your Bond with Your Cat

Some of the body language cues above are subtle and can be easily missed by pet parents, but one very clear sign your cat isn't in the mood is when he walks away from you. Unfortunately, many people ignore even that red flag and continue to pursue interaction, leaving kitty with very few options.

Cats need to feel in charge of their environment, and many well-meaning pet parents don't realize the role they play in creating stress for their feline family members. The following are 5 things you should avoid doing that will go a long way toward respecting your pet's natural instincts, strengthening the bond you share, and preventing the communication missteps that can result in cat bites.

1. Don't force interactions — Don't pull your cat from her hiding spot or hold her against her will (unless there's an emergency of some kind and you need to move her). Encourage her to come to you but let her choose to interact with you on her terms. Having consistently positive and gentle interactions fosters trust. If she wanders off to hide or have a nap, don't pursue her. Having time to herself when she wants it will help her feel safe and secure.

2. Don't punish — When your cat is behaving in a way you don't want him to, getting physical with him will do only one thing — teach him to fear you. Yelling at him will scare him off, but probably only for the moment (and risk making him think you're unsafe).

Instead, when you find him doing something he shouldn't, distract him with a toy or activity to show him what you want him to do instead, and then lavishly reward him for his desirable behavior. In addition, make sure he has plenty of approved climbing and scratching surfaces around your home, and keep potentially hazardous items out of his reach.

3. Don't encourage play aggression — Play aggression is fairly typical behavior in kittens and young cats. Hiding under furniture and jumping out to attack your foot or ankle, pouncing on your legs under the bedcovers and even wrestling with and biting your hand are all par for the course for a young cat. Normally, your kitten would get out such play aggressions with his littermates, during which he would learn when his behavior had gone too far.

If a kitten gets too rough with his littermates, they will bite back or stop playing, teaching him that there are limits. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in kittens and young cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties, and cats without appropriate play outlets.

You can help to avoid over-aggressive play in your kitten by taking the role of his littermates; when he is about to pounce on you, hiss at him or loudly say "ouch," then stop playing for a few minutes. If you are consistent with this, your kitten will learn the limits of play.

4. Don't stare — Many kitties are tremendously uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact from their humans. This is because most animals view prolonged eye contact as an act of aggression and staring at your cat can make her feel anxious and fearful.

A better approach when gazing at your cat is to close your eyes for a few seconds, then open them and look away, or simply glance away once she meets your gaze. This will show her you are not a threat.

5. Don't use physical restraint — Don't hold your cat to kiss or hug him. Cats are natural predators, but they're also prey. The first thing a predator does upon catching a prey animal is restrain it, which is why your kitty needs to maintain his ability to move freely and escape. It's also why he probably gets stressed when you hold him, even though you're being affectionate.

Don't hold his head. It's natural for humans to approach cats head on, however, it's anything but natural for the cat, which is why the response of most kitties is to recoil from a direct grab. Unfortunately, as soon as the cat throws it in reverse, many people are so committed to the exchange they grab his head and proceed to ruffle his fur. Now, imagine how you'd like it if someone did that to you!

Cats don't appreciate a head-on approach or head grabs. They are much more comfortable with long, gentle strokes from the head or neck area to the tail, or a bit of light scratching around the ears or chin.

 

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