Two orange ginger tabbies biting and wrestling.
Two orange ginger tabbies biting and wrestling. Photography ©Nungning20 | Getty Images.

Why Do Cats Bite?

Why do cats bite? Anything from health problems to aggressive play could be at hand. Learn more about what’s behind your cat’s biting here.
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They may not speak our language, but cats are prolific communicators. They communicate through vocalization, purring, hissing, tail movements and numerous other nonverbal devices. When they want to make a bold statement, they bite. So, why do cats bite?

“The reasons for biting are legion,” says cat behavior expert Dusty Rainbolt, who writes about feline health and behavior. Having rescued and rehomed more than 1,500 cats since 1986 through fostering and other rescue programs, Dusty has lost count of the number of cat bites she has witnessed. She shares just a few of the answers to the question, “Why do cats bite?”

1. Health problems and pain

Two cats wrestling and fighting.
Two cats wrestling and fighting. Photography ©axelbueckert | Getty Images.

Any time you notice a behavioral change in your cat, first rule out a health problem. “If you have a cat who has never bitten before and all of the sudden starts biting, you need to go to the vet,” Dusty says.

So, why do cats bite? Sometimes it’s because of physical discomfort. “Cats can’t tell you, ‘I hurt,’” Dusty says. “Cats don’t do things because they’re bad cats; they do things because it’s the only way to get a message across.”

Health conditions that could prompt a cat to bite include dental problems, arthritis, constipation and hyperesthesia syndrome, a skin condition that can make the cat feel pain when touched or cause the sensation of having fleas. A cat experiencing arthritic joint pain might bite the child who squeezes him, “because they can’t say, ‘Leave me alone,’” Dusty says.

Declawed cats tend to bite more, not just because they can’t defend themselves with their claws. One study, “Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats,” published May 2017 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, concluded that declawing increased the risk of pain and unwanted behaviors in cats.

2. Aggressive play

Another answer to the question, “Why do cats bite?” Aggressive play. For kittens and cats, playing is training for hunting and fighting. In the wild, cats have to hunt for food and fight for self-defense. Kittens will play bite their littermates and anything that moves, including human hands and feet. As adorable as this might be when they’re kittens, you don’t want to encourage this behavior because cat bites can puncture skin and cause infection. Instead, redirect play biting to cat toys.

Aggressive play is what a cat has to do to survive,” Dusty says. Instead of stopping cats from doing it, she recommends satisfying the cat’s natural need to bite and chase with toys that mimic prey. Try to make the toy act like prey, taking a few steps, then stopping to wiggle the toy and repeating these moves, making sure the cat can catch it to avoid frustrating him.

3. Defense and offense

Self-defense or dominance are more answers to the question, “Why do cats bites?” How do you know your cats are truly fighting and not playing? “There’s more yowling and vocalization in a real fight and a stare down before the attack,” Dusty says. “Usually the cat doing the staring is the aggressive one. The cat making the noise or yowling is on the defense. The one on offense doesn’t need to make noise.”

If your cats are fighting, Dusty recommends making a noise that distracts them and separating them without touching them. Serious biting can cause an abscess, and that’s a trip to the vet, she says. Don’t touch the cats when they are in this aggravated state.

Sometimes cats will bite out of fear. “If you see the body language closed up or trying to look big, the cat is afraid,” Dusty says. A dog or another cat could be outside. Regardless of the reason, it’s not a good time to pick up your cat, because cats experience something called redirected aggression. That means they take out their aggression on someone who is not the cause of the agitation. “When you see that your cat is in an agitated state, leave him alone and let him calm down,” Dusty says.

Pay attention to your cat’s nonverbal clues to find out what he needs and avoid getting bitten.

4. Love bites and petting

A gray and white cat biting fingers.
Why do cats bite when you’re petting them? Photography ©Casey Elise Photography.

Why do cats bite you when you’re petting them? Or why do cats bite you when they’re licking you or otherwise seemingly happy? You may have heard of cat love bites, and it’s true that cats sometimes bite the ones they love. Love bites usually do not penetrate the skin, though, unless you panic and yank your hand away.

Mirroring how a mother cat grooms her kittens, love bites are gentle and are usually followed by licking. Cats often groom themselves by biting and licking. You could call it the feline version of scrubbing and rinsing.

Sometimes cats bite when they become overstimulated from petting. Individual cats seem to have their own thresholds of how much stimulation they can tolerate. A cat who has received enough petting will look back at your hand.

Dusty recommends watching the ears and tail. If the ears go back and the tail starts moving, stop petting the cat.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Nungning20 | Getty Images.

About the author

Author and Editor Susan Logan-McCracken shares her home with her husband, Mark, and two red tabby domestic longhaired cats, Maddie and Sophie.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home. 

Read more about cat behavior on Catster.com:

11 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Bite?”

  1. Sandra Lee Davis

    My Little Man nibbles on the end of my fingers, he only does it to get my attention so I will pet him. He is very sweet and “talks” all the time. He never bites hard!

  2. I have a cat bought of gumtree,first ever buy always rescue,daft woman said she wanted to go on holiday,no one to have him,feeble excuse found he’d been kept in dark a lot and not used to people,didn’t know what toys were,had him 3years now and we agood understanding but 6times now he’s ran at my legs stuck teeth and claws in.got me very bad,also on my hands a few times,seems to be jelousey as last time was cos I didn’t bring a chew stick to bed for him,ran at my leg all teeth in and claws,leg a right mess,know he will do it again and it’s broken my trust,and scared he will infect my legs,even though he don’t go out,think he did but moron said never been out,any ideas as kisses one minor then can just stick teeth and claws in me,always same leg as well most of time,can’t part with him but cat bites can be very dangerous,think a lot is boredom as she kept other cat,not fair,but think maybe kids pulled him about and he took it for so long then turned,more readable story for selling,disgusted at the holiday story,they are family,wonder if kids were sold as well?Any ideas how to stop it before IV no legs ool

    1. Hi Lynda,

      We suggest taking this issue to a professional behaviorist. These articles might provide some additional insight as well:
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-behavior-problems-tips-cats-aggressive-aggression
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/how-to-stop-kitten-biting
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-love-bites-what-do-they-mean
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/how-to-treat-cat-bites-puncture-wounds
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/5-ways-stop-cat-biting-behavior-training

    2. PAULA MELVILLE

      One of my cats is a feral, he bites very hard when petted, although he loves it. He is my cuddle cat and very soppy. As soon as he falls on his back, I know he’ll start. If these attacks come from out of the blue he may be bored and need stimulation, have you tried a cat laser pen? My five adore them, chase them around the floor and work off any aggression and energy, the love the ‘red dot’. Not as hard on the arm as a fishing rod toy, although I use those as well, they jump after them like mad and I end up vacuuming up a lot of feathers, but that cats are happy.

  3. Yes – we have an adopted boy who was dumped in our neighborhood, and he bit viciously at first (four trips to the ER and Walk-in.). We think this was about dominance more than anything. He has learned not to do this because he gets a firm, sharp “no!” If he’s on a lap, he gets put down on the floor. He knows his biting elicits our displeased reaction. However, if your cat is timid and is only biting because petting overstimulates her, I wouldn’t do this. In that case, just read her body language as mentioned in the article. Flattening her ears or switching her tail mean that she’s likely to bite.

  4. I adopted a Mackerel Tabby at the age of two. Unfortunately Flopsie was segregated from ALL other cats. She seemed to be a sweet girl though I later learned had never been properly socialized. She would tolerate affection i e gentle stroking on body stomach head or paws. I’ve had her for four years now and she’s no better than when I adopted her. ANY HELP OR SUGGESTIONS? I’d really like to get another tabby.

    1. Yes – we have an adopted boy who was dumped in our neighborhood, and he bit viciously at first (four trips to the ER and Walk-in.). We think this was about dominance more than anything. He has learned not to do this because he gets a firm, sharp “no!” If he’s on a lap, he gets put down on the floor. He knows his biting elicits our displeased reaction. However, if your cat is timid and is only biting because petting overstimulates her, I wouldn’t do this. In that case, just read her body language as mentioned in the article. Flattening her ears or switching her tail mean that she’s likely to bite.

    2. Hi Allie,

      These articles might help provide some insight:
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-behavior-problems-tips-cats-aggressive-aggression
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/having-two-cats-or-more
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/do-cats-get-lonely-do-cats-need-other-cats
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-behavior-problems-and-how-to-handle-them
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/common-cat-behavioral-issues

  5. Lucinda J Dustin

    I taught my cat not to bite hard. We have aggressive playtime. He is not socialized to be around humans that want to pet him, my choice, and when we play hard I wear long sleeve sweatshirt to cover hands, but he knows “NO” and stops before he breaks skin. It happens sometimes, I keep stuff on hand for accidents. I don’t recommend this for anyone that shares their pet, but I don’t share. He likes his Vet but that is limited. You can teach them to not bite hard, but I think it is required training when they are kittens. Mine was four months old when we started playing and to this day he knows the word “NO”. He stops.
    If your kitty shows affection be gentle and stroke, if she tries to bite. she has had enough. I tend to over touch mine. Like me, when it is enough, we want to bite. I just get cranky.
    I believe the expression “rubbing the cat’s fur the wrong way” applies. Sometimes, enough is enough. If you are patient you may find her to be a cuddle cat. You will learn when to leave it alone and they are demanding when they want attention. It is a learning experience and worth the walk with your cat. She may be overcoming a past of not being cuddled when she needed it. So she needs to relearn how to accept attention. You need to learn when enough is enough.
    Hope this helps and thanks for offering love to another stray. Sounds like you have a great companion.

  6. I found this article as helpful, but, I still have a question about my newly adopted shelter cat. She is no more than 1 year old. I believe she wants to be petted at that time, she’s rubbing her head on my hand, purring, then her tail starts to swish left to right – to me, they are mixed signals. Not sure if this behavior is caused by her coming from the shelter who said she was a stray. She’s not a feral cat. I believe someone did own her in the beginning and then decided they didn’t want her and dropped her somewhere. Can you possibly explain why you believe she reacts this way when petted and is there hope that she can get better about receiving affection? Otherwise, she friendly, playful, energetic, curious, and she follows me around the house; meows at me when she wants attention; etc.

    1. Hi Elise,

      Thanks for reaching out! These articles might provide some additional insight:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-tail-language-what-your-cats-tail-is-telling-you
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-behavior-facts-body-language-tail
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-tail-wagging-the-meaning-of-different-cat-tail-wags
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/why-do-cats-purr
      https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/why-do-cats-rub-against-you-a-weird-cat-behavior-explained

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