Why Does My Cat Bite me?

Why Does My Cat Bite Me?
If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, “Why does my cat bite me?” The answer can be for a number of reasons so a little detective work is needed.

Love bites, neediness (or wanting something)
Perhaps you’ve been petting your cat, they are enjoying it, maybe even grooming you a bit and then out of nowhere comes a little nip, not a real bite but a little pressure. This is sometimes called a love bite and is usually gentle pressure and may be accompanied by kneading (making biscuits). This type of “bite” is not intended to cause injury and it may even reflect at times a need for something like a reminder that it’s mealtime (remember cats get food in nature by biting living creatures!).

Overstimulation or Petting Induced Aggression
Not to be confused with love bites, overstimulation occurs when a cat gets frustrated or conflicted by the petting they’re receiving. It’s not a well understood condition but we know that fur follicles are connected to nerve endings and for some cats the good feeling they get from being pet may in time become unpleasant, just too much stimulation. By analogy, imagine your partner is petting you. Might you not eventually get tired of this and ask them to stop? How long does it take a cat to become overstimulated? Every cat is different, some may take a few minutes, while others may only allow a few seconds.

Slightly different than overstimulation is petting induced aggression. We use this term when either the cat doesn’t tolerate any petting, or there is an area of their body that they consistently don’t like being pet or touched. Petting induced aggression is sometimes considered a little more serious than overstimulation.

How are these conditions treated? Hopefully your cat gives you at least one warning sign that they are reaching their limit like a swishy tail, ears that go sideways or back, pupils that dilate, skin ripples, a tensing body or a raised paw. The best approach, once you know the warning signs, is to actually stop petting before you see a warning sign. We don’t want our cat to become conflicted in the first place, and by preventing this they are hopefully over time forgetting that they can become conflicted. This is also a good time to give them a treat so that they feel even better. In some cases, especially with cats that overstimulate quickly, giving treats during petting may help. The hope is that over time, we can extend the amount of time that they enjoy the petting.

For cats that don’t show any warning signs, we need to time them to see how long we can pet them without a negative reaction. Once you know how long you can pet them, back off and pet them for shorter times than this so that you don’t take them over the threshold, and again offer treats.

With petting induced aggression, never pet them on that part of their body that they don’t like being touched, and see if you can gently pet them in other areas while they are eating or engaging in gentle play. Some cats may just prefer being appreciated from a little distance, and with these cats you may need to look for other ways to interact.

Play Biting
Some cats, especially ones that were raised without siblings, don’t develop good bite inhibition. This is when kittens teach each other during play, how hard a bite is too hard. If a cat bites you during play, perhaps turning from the toy to your hand, it’s ok to make a cry of pain, and then turn your back on them and walk away and leave the room for a brief time-out (a few minutes). This temporary loss of social connection helps teach your cat over time, that every time they bite you, they lose you, and this can help teach better behavior. Distance increasing toys like feather wands may help, and tossable toys may help as well. Motion sensitive toys like the Flapping Sandpiper also help remove you from the play session while still giving your cat satisfaction. Boredom is another cause so keep your cat entertained with tunnels, climbing trees, and interactive hunting sessions. Hiding treats around your home and leading your cat to them with a laser pointer can be very satisfying and prevents the problem of not being able to “catch the dot!”.

Many cats are in what I call a kitten-mother relationship with us. They purr, meow, and rub against us and then we give them things that they want like food, attention, play and comfort. But some cats, especially very confident, smart and playful cats tend to talk to us in the language they know best – the language of hunting. And that means biting to get what they want, attention, play or food. We’re the giant mouse and we’re often more interesting than toys. We move and we’re warm blooded. And if they bite us we often react like prey would react, we squeal “ouch!”, we flap our hands and we move away and so we look like an injured animal and they may find this exciting.

Cats engage in what I call the “cycle of predation”, by that I mean they hunt, kill, eat and then sleep, and they sleep in order to retain calories. This is why all species of cats sleep more than they’re awake, they’re conserving calories. Play, which is like hunting, if it isn’t paired with some sort of food reward for a cat may be frustrating to them and they won’t calm down until they get a meal. Getting the meal signals that it’s time to rest, so one way to reduce play biting is to give them the paycheck for their job, a snack. Scheduled play where you play with your cat at the same times each day creates routine and lessens the “slot machine effect” whereby they pester you to get a randomized, intermittent reward. Puzzle feeders separate you from them and can be helpful too. One of my favorite puzzle feeders is by catamazing.com and you can get 15% off all their products at their website or on Amazon with a special code that I will send you if you message or email me. I’ve had some clients tell me that their cat gets so exhausted using it that they fall asleep next to it.
Cat Amazing Sliders Large Puzzle feeder
Classic Slider (Assembly Instructions (video) for the Classic Slider),
Large Puzzle Feeder assembly instructions (video)
Mega Slider.

Fear and Fear Inducing Triggers
Some cats are just more fearful than others and may resort to biting out of fear-aggression. More commonly there are specific triggers that can cause unexpected aggression including hissing, growling, swatting and biting. Triggers can be sounds like a siren, or a slamming door, or oddly, sometimes it’s a noise like the crunching of a paper or plastic bag, or sweeping with a broom. These sounds may actually resemble a hiss, or have a higher frequency like a hiss and may be challenging to some cats. Unexpected movements can be triggering, I had a client who tripped over a phone cord and the cat attacked him as a result. A cat can also bite as a result of redirected aggression. They see something that scares them and rather than attack that thing, they redirect on you. This is a fairly rare form of aggression.

Pain and Illness
When a cat is ill or in pain they are under stress and discomfort, and this can result in unexpected biting. If you have any concerns about your cat’s health you should see a vet, and if your cat is acting oddly, is lethargic, hiding unexpectedly, off their food, not urinating or defecating normally, vomiting or sitting or crouching in odd places or postures you should consult a vet.

If You Get Bit ….
Cat bites can be serious and can easily become infected, sometimes dangerously so. If you get bit you should wash the wound with soap and hot water, apply an antiseptic and sterile bandage, and then seek medical aid like at an urgent care facility. The time between a bite and a serious infection can be very short.

And Finally
Always consult a vet if your cat bites you for no apparent reason and feel free to contact me for a behavioral consultation at [email protected].

stephen quandt with his cats cricket and jenny

By Stephen Quandt

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