Why Cats Bite and How to Stop Them
Why are cat bites a cause for concern?
Cat bites can be dangerous if not taken care of properly. Cats have sharp teeth that are able to make deep punctures, and cats’ mouths harbor a lot of bacteria that can potentially cause infection. If left untreated or not given proper first aid care, cat bites can lead to infection, cat scratch fever, or in rare cases, rabies. If the puncture wound is deep and dirt or outside debris get into the wound, tetanus can also be of concern. One in three cat bites will become infected, compared to the much lower likelihood of infection from dog bites. If an infected cat bite is left untreated, it can develop into cat scratch fever, which is a bacterial infection that causes flu-like symptoms and can cause serious complications such as encephalopathy or vision loss. Although more attention is often given to dog bites and the danger of rabies, statistics show that there are 300% more rabid cats in the US than rabid dogs.
How common are cat bites?
Each year over 400,000 cat bites occur, compared to over 4 million dog bites. Almost 20% of cat bites end up needing medical care. Cat bites usually come from a cat that you know, but stray or outdoor cats also pose a risk.
What factors affect a cat’s tendency to bite?
Cats may bite for many reasons. Below are some of the primary causes that will make a cat more prone to bite:
Young kittens will bite or scratch each other or their owners as part of play, and this is normal. Usually by about four months of age play biting and scratching should subside. If a kitten spends time around other kittens or their mother, these behaviors may subside faster, as they learn more quickly by first-hand experience from their furry family members that biting and scratching hurt.
It’s in their genes
Just like in humans, some personality traits in cats may be hereditary. Certain cats may be predisposed to aggressive behavior, thanks to their parents. The results from one study suggest that the paternal cat’s personality in particular is a good indicator of how friendly his kittens would turn out. Even when separated immediately after birth from their parents, kittens with friendly fathers have a pretty high likelihood of being friendly themselves, and vice versa.
Cats are sensitive to their owner's emotions. True to the saying “copy-cat,” cats tend to mimic their owner’s moods. Another study saw cat asking sad when their owners appeared sad, and happy when their owner appeared happy. It is no surprise, then, that cats may display more aggressive behavior if that kind of behavior is what they observe from their owner. Likewise, frequently yelling at your cat as a means of discipline can cause them to become defensive and more likely to bite.
Changes at home
New baby at home? Decided to get a dog? Have family from out of town staying for a little while? These are all examples of changes to your cat’s routine that can put extra stress on them and cause them to resort to biting. Cats are creatures of habit. They tend to sleep in the same place at the same time each day, want to cuddle with you at the same time each day, and so on. If events outside of their control cause their routine to change, they may feel threatened or jealous. Many cats display happy, friendly personalities for years until a new baby comes along. Just like a jealous older sibling, they may feel suddenly less valued and loved when they receive less attention than they are used to.
Fear or provocation
If a cat feels threatened because a human or other animal is continually bothering them, they may lash out by biting as a warning to leave them alone. Many cat bites in children occur this way—a toddler may think it’s funny to continually poke the family cat with their feather toy, but kitty probably does not feel the same way. In general, cats like for things to be their idea. They want to play when they want to play, they want to cuddle when they want to cuddle, etc. If someone tries to make them participate in something they don’t want to do, they may bite in attempt to be left alone.
Basic needs not being met
Just like the rest of us, cats need food, water, shelter, and some attention to thrive. If a cat expects his food bowl to be replenished every day at 5pm when you get home from work, and by 5:30pm there is still no food, your cat may resort to biting to let you know they need something from you. Cats can’t talk to let us know what they want. Biting, in addition to meowing and other vocal sounds, is one way they can get your attention.
How can I correct my cat’s biting problem?
Determine the cause
The cause of your cat’s biting behavior may or may not be easily identifiable. If a known stressor is causing your cat to bite, try to do what you can to neutralize the situation again. If you recently got a new roommate who is sitting in your cat’s spot on the couch every night when they are used to claiming that territory as their own, do what you can to make that happen for your cat again. If you brought home a new baby recently and your cat is feeling a little unloved, make sure to spend some extra time with them when baby is asleep. If you can figure out what is causing your cat to bite you can narrow down the possible solutions.
Adjust your behavior
Do you yell loudly at your cat when they climb on a piece of furniture that is off limits? Are you severely stressed out and wear those emotions on your sleeve? As discussed earlier, cats pick up on your behavior, both that toward them and otherwise. Stop yelling at your cat as a form of discipline, and try to have a happy, friendly demeanor and set the example.
Other simple adjustments to your mannerisms can prevent some biting. If your cat sneaks up on you and bites your leg, they could think it is a game and be play hunting. If this sounds like your cat, a good tactic is to always make eye contact with your cat before walking down a hallway or around a corner. If they know you see them coming, it’s no longer as fun. Also, avoid making sudden jerky movements around your cat. It can startle them, causing them to bite.
Provide consequences for biting
If you have tried the above methods to stop your cat from biting, let your cat know that their behavior cannot continue without consequences. When they bite, remove them from the situation and give them a “time-out.” This can be some time in another room or locked in the basement. Just make sure their basic needs are still being met, and they have access to food, water, and a litter box. Every time your cat bites, provide the same consequence so that they associate it with the negative behavior. By the same token, use positive reinforcement by rewarding your cat when they have good behavior. Tuna, cat treats, or catnip are good options.
Give them some extra attention
A lot of the time a cat bites, it may be because they are trying to get your attention. As long as they are willing, make sure to take some time every day to pay special attention to your cat. Let them sit in your lap, pet them when they rub against them, or spend some time playing with them. Some great toys to use to play with your cat are laser lights, feathers, and toy mice.
Get them a furry friend
If a cat displays behavioral problems such as biting, often times it can help to get them a companion. Cats may get bored or lonely, especially if left alone for long periods each day. Another pet, particularly a cat, could provide them the company they need. Also, if they play with their new friend and use their biting tactic toward them, the other animal is likely to fight back, and your cat will get the idea that biting hurts. Note that this is not a guaranteed solution, and sometimes cats respond negatively when another pet comes in to the home, but this method has worked for some.
I’ve been bitten by a cat. What should I do?
If you’ve been bitten by a cat, always wash the area immediately with soap and water. Apply topical antibiotic cream, such as Neosporin, and cover it with a bandage. Let it bleed if possible, as this can wash out the bacteria introduced form the cat’s mouth. Monitor the area closely. If it begins to swell, turn red, or becomes hot to the touch, or if you develop a fever, seek medical attention. These are signs that the bite has become infected, and you most likely will need antibiotics. Often times cat bites are treated with antibiotics before symptoms of infection develop due to the high probability of them becoming infected.
Check the vaccine records of the cat. If it has not had routine rabies vaccinations, it may need to be quarantined for a certain amount of time to make sure it does not have rabies, and that there is no risk of rabies to you. Make sure to keep your cat’s vaccines up to date. If the bite is from a stray cat or a cat whose immunization records are not known, it is best to err on the side of caution. If rabies is suspected, you will need to get a series of four shots called Human Rabies Immune Globulin (HRIG). If you think there is any possibility of rabies in the cat who has bitten you, seek medical help right away.
If an untreated cat bite develops a red or brown bump over the affected area, coupled with swollen lymph nodes, this could be a sign of cat scratch fever. You should also seek medical attention in this case.
What if my cat continues to bite?
With some patience and discipline, most cat behavior issues can be resolved. If none of the methods above are able to solve your cat’s biting problem, resources exist to offer support:
- Your local Humane Society usually offers animal behavior classes
- A visit to your vet can rule out underlying medical problems