Layne has fostered kittens and worked in animal shelters for over 8 years.
Why Do Cats Bite Their Owners?
Most cat owners know that their pet has the potential to bite. For some, their kitten or cat might bite them regularly. From love nips to deep wounds, these seeming acts of aggression are not fun and often leave the owner confused.
While it might seem like your cat is biting for no reason in particular, there is always a reason behind it—your feline friend may be vying for your attention, they may be overstimulated, they may be painful, they may be playful, or they may have an underlying medical issue. Let's talk about the various causes of this behavior.
5 Common Reasons Why Cats Bite
- Medical Issues
1. Medical Issues
Some cats may simply be cranky and painful due to an underlying medical condition. This is especially true of older cats and the same thing goes for dogs. When an animal is in ill-health, they will be defensive. You may notice that they try to bite you when you get near their mouth or you try to touch them somewhere on their body that is painful . . . this is especially true of arthritic adult cats. If your cat is 18+ years old and walks around tepidly, you may want to talk to your vet about offering them some vet-approved anti-inflamatories or pain medication. Similarly, cancer (e.g. brain tumors) can cause unpredictable behavior in animals.
As always, when an animal is uncomfortable, do not handle them roughly. Instead, you can allow your cat to come to you—maybe they just want to sit on your lap! If your pet is painful, follow up with your veterinarian and get them pain relief fast. Chronic pain shortens life expectancy in some cases due to chronic inflammation and impacts quality of life. Do the right thing and get them checked out.
Some cats simply want to tell you when it's time to stop interacting and to leave them alone. Imagine if you lived in a house with another species always coming up to you and waking you up from a nap, petting you. Some cats simply love the attention and can't get enough (e.g. the cuddly Ragdoll breed), other cats will let you know when enough is enough.
I grew up with several cats that used to come and hangout and be all sweet, then the next minute it was like a fuse was lit and they turned around and attacked/bit. Looking back, I could've noticed the warning signs. Some cats simply get a sense of overwhelm from too much petting or brushing. Hyperstimulation in some cats can actually turn into pain.
Medium and Long-Haired Cats Can Overheat
Some long-haired cats really don't do well with extended lap time. This was true of our cat. She was long-haired and extremely fluffy. She had about a 5-minute window of chill time on the lap. After that, she'd suddenly explode and bite. We started to notice that she simply would get too warm and would let us know by biting. This is common of many cats.
Some cats are simply curious and may be lacking the social awareness to know that human skin is thin and fragile and we don't have thick fur coats. If your cat is the type to test literally everything (trust me, you will know if this applies to your cat), biting might simply be a curious behavior to them.
Most cats and kittens learn quite early that soft biting is reserved for play but too much means the playmate will withdraw from the play session. If your cat was a singleton and never learned this from mom or siblings, then it's possible they continued on through their life literally trying everything with their teeth to see what it is. This is especially true of cats under 2 years of age (everything to them is interesting). Hopefully your cat will grow out of it!
Similar to being curious, some cats simply bite because they are feeling playful. They may see you or someone in your family as kin. It is not uncommon for younger cats to try to test the waters and engage in play with a love nibble here and there. Love nibbles are totally the norm for many cats and their many different personalities. Similarly, there is a huge difference between an aggressive, mean bite, and a playful love-nip. Love nips might just mean your cat adores you (these don't puncture skin), and other times bites can simply be a result of playfulness.
Tips for Preventing Rough Play
Never use your hands or feet to intrigue your cat and engage in play. You are essentially training them to attack your moving body parts. Sooner or later they won't be able to distinguish the difference between a moving toy and your hands or feet. Never use a body part to play with a cat. Never taunt a cat. You are setting them up for a lifetime of misunderstanding.
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Just like puppies, kittens go through a teething period (in fact, my last kitten's teething phase was horrible!). Cat teeth start to appear at 10 weeks of age and fill in by 6 months of age; cats will have their permanent set of teeth by 6-7 months of age (all 30 adult teeth in total).
Kittens, just like puppies, want to test their teeth out on everything and anything, and if they don't have mom or siblings around to tell them "ouch that hurts," the biting will obvious. Cat teething stages are included below.
When Do Kittens Get Their Teeth?
- 0-2 weeks, no teeth
- 2-4 weeks, first teeth appear
- 5-8 weeks, baby teeth erupt until all 26 appear
- 11 weeks, baby teeth start to fall out
- 3-4 weeks, adult teeth start to appear in this order: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars
- 6-7 weeks, all 30 permanent teeth will be present
How Do I Know If My Kitten Is Teething?
- Missing teeth: Your kitten might be missing teeth (it's not uncommon to find them on the floor or around the house).
- Chewing: Excessive chewing is a sure sign that your kitten is teething. It doesn't matter if the object is stationary or moving . . . you might find little teeth marks around the house. (It's always important to kitten-proof your home!).
- Sensitivity: Your kitten might paw at their mouth or itch at their mouth as their teeth are coming in.
- Irritability: Your kitten might appear "moody" and more irritable than normal.
- Loss of Appetite: Sometimes kittens will eat less because of gum sensitivity. It is extremely important that you not ween your kitten too soon and keep them on soft food until they reach 6 months of age. You can offer them dry food for tasting, but wet should should be offered to babies.
How to Stop a Kitten From Biting
How to Tell If a Cat Is Going to Bite
It's important to revisit the idea that humans and cats are very different species. Remember, animals can't communicate with us in an obvious way, so biting just happens to be one way that they communicate even though we find it to be inappropriate. Here's how to tell if your cat is about to bite you:
- The ears: The ears are an obvious indicator about a cat's current temperament. When the ears are forward and "relaxed" in a natural position, they are likely attentive and/or calm. However, once the ears point backwards, you're in for it! Ears pointed back on a cat can mean they are about to playfully attack something or not-so-playfully attack you. Watch out.
- The tail: Your cat might be chilling on your lap and suddenly you notice the tail starting to swish back and forth even though they seem peaceful and calm. Know that when the tail starts to swish (especially if there's not a bird outside or something) your cat is about to explode!
- Restlessness: Restlessness coupled with the aforementioned tail and ear movement is another indication that your cat might be on the verge of biting you. If they are on your lap and start to move around quite a bit, they may want to simply get off your lap and cool off. If this is the case, let them go.
How to Stop a Cat From Biting You
Preventing cat bites is extremely important. Not only are cat bites bacteria-heavy (cat bites can result in horrible infections and even amputations!), but you don't want to live in a household where you are afraid of your every move, and you certainly don't want to set your cat up for failure. There are a few ways you can discourage cat biting behavior:
- Understand cat behavior: Understand when a cat is showing signs of biting. For example, a swishing tail and ears turned back is a clear indication that they are about to explode. Don't use your hands to push your cat off your lap. Simply stand up and move away.
- Understand your cat's threshold: Your cat might be cool for 5 minutes of petting and then after that they are done. If this is true of your kitty, know when to step away. You can brush them or enjoy them for that small window, but be mindful of their behavior and end the interaction at just the right time.
- Never use your hands for punishment: Never ever use your hands to punish your cat. This means that you should never push them off a ledge if they are digging in your plants and you should never move them around when they are in a bad mood. Similarly, never play with your bare hands! You are training them to attack them like a toy! If your cat is all up in your plants use something like the pet corrector (better than a spray bottle). We use this in my household and now we just simply grab the can and our cat stops the naughty behavior. They don't know where the sound is coming from (it's a loud hiss) and it works wonders.
- Have plenty of toys: Having plenty of toys around (and scratching posts) is important to keep a cat happy. Sometimes biting occurs out of boredom. If your cat is bored, problematic behaviors are sure to develop. Offer them plenty of age-appropriate toys (crinkly blankets for kittens, feather toys, etc.). Never offer strings and dangerous things or leave them unattended with ingestible parts.
- Give them plenty of love: Offering your kitty plenty of love is also important. Cats might simply be looking for attention and just like dogs, can act out to get you to notice. Bad behavior often stems from something deeper other than instinct, so make sure you spend time with your companion.
- Adopt a playmate: Maybe your young kitten is full of energy and simply needs an age-appropriate friend. If your senior dog is tired of getting beat up or your youngest child is the target of your kitten's play aggression, consider finding a suitable high-energy playmate. Save a life and adopt! Talk to the adoption specialists about your cat's personality to make sure it's a good fit.
What to Do If You Get a Cat Bite
Cat bites are serious. First, move away from your cat and do not punish them. Coming at your cat with aggression or correcting them in a heightened moment can further worsen their behavior.
Get to the nearest sink and flush your wound with water and use soap to wash the bite. If it's available to you, go to the nearest hospital. If you cannot get to the hospital but can call a nurse, tell them that you were bit by a cat—they should be able to prescribe you antibiotics and provide some advice on how to take care of your wound. Don't wait. Some cat bites can result in amputation or serious systemic infections. Cat bites leave deep puncture wounds and the bacteria introduced by feline saliva does very well in anaerobic conditions (this means the bacteria thrives in a deep wound).
Last time I was bit by a cat I called the the hospital and got a nurse on the phone (the antibiotic used for cat bites is common); they very easily prescribed me the antibiotic and I picked it up some day. Don't chance it.
Take care of yourself and look into working with a veterinary behaviorist if your cat is truly acting out and it's not because of the aforementioned scenarios. As always, share your story below!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Laynie H
Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2020:
I am often wary of this happening especially when young children are around. This is a very helpful and informative article.