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7 Reasons Cats Bite and How to Stop It (Our Vet Answers)

cat bites the woman's hand
Image Credit: Luis Echeverri Urrea, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS (Vet)

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Written by

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

MRCVS, Veterinarian

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cat owners the world over know that cats can be unpredictable creatures. One minute you’re having a nice cuddle on the sofa, and the next, they lash out. It seems completely random, but cats seldom do things without reason —it’s just that it can be hard for us to work out exactly what’s going on.

Feline Behavior

Cats are highly-strung creatures. They evolved as hunters but are small enough that they are also preyed upon by larger creatures. This means they’re anxious and uncomfortable in new situations but highly intelligent and need lots of stimulation. Most feline behaviors can be explained by reference to their wild ancestors.

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Why Does My Cat Bite Me?

Even though it seems to come out of the blue, your cat is likely giving you some signs that they’re going to bite; you may just be missing them because cat signaling is so subtle. Determining what’s causing your cat to lash out is the first step to fixing it.

1. Fear/Anxiety

For many cats, aggression is rooted in fear and anxiety. These cats will give the strongest warnings before lashing out, but for some cats, that can still be subtle enough to be missed. Cats that flatten their ears, growl, hiss, swish their tails, or back away when being petted are showing signs of fear; some will bite, and others will lash out with their claws. Neither is nice!

However, it’s important to learn to look for these signs. Even cats that don’t usually lash out and appear to be “putting up with” being petted can learn that their polite requests for you to back off go ignored—and next time, they might not ask so nicely.

2. Play

cat biting a fidget spinner
Image by Wil Nemao from Pixabay

Many cats that bite out of the blue are actually trying to play. Often, these cats have been inadvertently taught as kittens that hands or feet are fun play toys. This is because it’s quite sweet when a little kitten attacks your feet under the blanket or “catches” and chews on your hands…but if this isn’t stopped, they may grow up thinking that a fast-moving hand or foot is perfect to practice their hunting skills on.

Solution: Look for the Signals

Cats that bite during play are often giving off clear play signals. They may be swishing their tails gently or wiggling their butts. Often, they’ll rush, pounce, claw, and bite in one swift, practiced movement. This is often seen as a surprise attack by their owners, who had no idea that the kitty was in a playful mood and that their moving feet looked like the perfect target.

Solution: Try Redirection

Preventing your cat from biting you as a part of a hunt-play routine is all down to redirecting their play and rewarding them for the correct play behavior. Try using a toy that distances you from the game, such as a “fishing rod” type toy. Encourage your cat to play with it. If your cat decides that you’re part of the game, too, you should stop moving immediately.

Sometimes, hard shoes or even rain boots are required while your cat is going through this training to prevent accidental movement or squeaking. At first, they may try to bite more often or harder to start the “game,” but persistence will soon teach them that the game is with the toy, not with you.

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3. Communication

Some cats will bite as a form of communication; these cats usually want attention. They’ve learned that by biting, they get something they want. This might be to go outside or have their food bowl filled up; they might even just want some attention. It can be very hard to predict when these cats will strike, but the important thing to do is to make sure that you don’t give in to them. In your cat’s mind, “I bite, then I get fed” is very closely linked.

Solution: Break the Association

You need to try to break the association. So, try feeding your cat before they bite. If your cat starts biting to be let out, don’t let them out. Instead, you want to reward them for the behavior you want, and you should let them out when they’re calm. If you’re struggling to break the association passively, you can actively train a new begging behavior by feeding your cat or giving it attention for something entirely new; patting you politely on the knee is one option

4. Over-stimulation

tabby cat biting a hand
Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

In a study into feline biting in Brazil, it was found that around 50% of cats bite unpredictably. Most of these cats bit in the context of petting; they’d be purring, seemingly enjoying a cuddle, and then—BAM!—they’d bite. The theory put forward by the researchers is that some cats can be over-stimulated by petting, and it puts them into a heightened emotional state. These cats love being cuddled…right up until they don’t anymore.

5. Miscommunication

One major miscommunication between cats and owners is with regard to your cat’s tummy. It’s surprisingly common for owners to get bitten while stroking their cat’s belly, and every time they say, “but he rolled over asking me to pet him!” This is a major species miscommunication. To cats, rolling over and showing their belly is a sign of trust. They’re saying, “I love and trust you, so I show you the most vulnerable part of me.”

Next thing they know, we’re sticking our great big hands all over them, betraying their trust. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, most cats really would rather you didn’t touch their bellies, and they show them to you only to indicate, from afar, how much they trust you.

6. Pain or Illness

If your previously loving cat suddenly starts biting, seemingly for no reason, and you don’t think any of the scenarios above apply, it’s possible that they are in pain, or are ill. Cats that are usually loving may lash out if they feel threatened. This can happen if they have arthritis or an injury, and they’re concerned that you touching it will be painful.

It might also happen if they have heart disease or lung disease, and breathing becomes more of a priority. Any extra weight on their chest, although it seems little to us, can cause them concern, and they may lash out to defend themselves.

  • Hyperthyroidism is a common disease in older cats and can cause aggression, too. If you can’t think of any reason that your cat could be lashing out, you should definitely check in with a vet to see whether there’s anything amiss on a physical exam.

7. Old age

Sometimes, old cats get dementia-like symptoms. They may change sleeping patterns, yowl, and “lose” you within the house, crying until they find you. They may also change to being more aggressive. Most cats are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure and recover from symptoms with medication. Some retain dementia-like symptoms, although a dietary change can help brain function.

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How Can I Stop My Cat From Biting Me?

Once you’ve got to the bottom of the problem affecting your cat, it’s time to stop them from biting. The first thing to do is to provide a physical barrier—thick, full-length clothing and shoes, even in the house, are ideal for protection. You may even need to wear gloves when doing whatever it is that sets your cat off. You’ll then need to deal with the root of the problem, but biting can be difficult to deal with. Your vet may recommend that you contact a feline behaviorist—this may even be done remotely, over video consultation.

What Should I Do If My Cat Bites Me?

Cat bites are dangerous if they break the skin. They can be deep and spread many bacteria into your body. I have been hospitalized from a cat bite to the hand (a less-than-grateful patient!). You should see your own doctor for antibiotics if your cat breaks the skin. Scratches can also spread disease. Clean even shallow scratches with antibacterial soap and visit your doctor if you feel ill or if you’re concerned by the size or depth of the scratch.

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Featured Image: Luis Echeverri Urrea, Shutterstock

About the Author

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS (Vet)
Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS (Vet)
Joanna is an experienced veterinarian working in the UK. She has written about pets and pet health for many websites, blogs, and pet magazines and loves to help owners understand their pets through her writing.

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