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What can you do if your cat bites you?

Posted by Jennifer on September 25th, 2013

Cat bites are not fun! This article is to help you with knowledge and tips for avoiding future cat bites from your pet cat. If you are reading this because you just got bitten by a cat, please know this is not an article about the medical care you may need. Instead, please go immediately to our “Cat bites are serious!” article right away! If you have a feisty young kitten (under 6 to 7 months old) who is play biting you, so not inflicting hard skin-puncturing bites, we suggest you first read our Is your kitten biting you or playing too rough? article. However, if you are here because your tame, usually friendly cat has suddenly tried to bite you, possibly more than once, and would like some tips to avoid being bitten, you’re in the right place! Read on…

Tame adult pet cats bite people for many reasons. The three most common reasons for indoor cats are overstimulation, fear, and anger/stress. Less common reasons are maternal, status, redirected, disease, or pain. It can be just one of those reasons, but sometimes is a combination of two or more. Understanding the causes can help you remove or counteract them, and reduce the chances of being bitten. However, figuring out what a cat is feeling is no easy task! This article isn’t a comprehensive guide to why cats bite, but can give you some tools to increase your understanding and reduce a cat’s biting. We highly recommend working with a professional cat behaviorist in addition to reading this article.

Below are examples of the three most common reasons cats bite, followed by what to do tips for each reason. Below that, we suggest one better way you can react the moment your cat tries to bite you, and finally one way to positively reward good behavior to further reduce biting behavior.

  1. Overstimulation. Often a cat who enjoys being pet, but then suddenly bites. 
  2. Fear. Examples include a cat that bites when picked up, when restrained (like for having his nails trimmed), or when woken suddenly.
  3. Anger/stress. Most commonly from territory changes or challenges, changes in their routine, or illness, but can be from other causes too.

If your cat bites you because he is overstimulated, you will need to try to learn what causes him to be overstimulated, and at what point the overstimulation causes a bite, then carefully avoid approaching his limits. So if your cat bites you after you’ve pet him five times, you may only be able to pet your cat one or two strokes. If he gets wound up after 5 minutes of playing with a toy on a string, you may be only able to play for 1 minute. This seems simple, but when your cat is acting affectionate or having fun, stopping can be really hard! Some cats will tolerate neck scratches without biting, but will bite if their back is pet.

Each cat is an individual, so you’ll need to carefully determine his individual limits. Closely observe your cat for any pre-bite warning signs – such as tail swishing, ears going back flat, body stiffness, growling/hissing, pupils dilating – and stop whatever activity you or he are doing immediately. You’ll also have to make sure all other humans that come in contact with your cat obey the limits you determine. Often “don’t pet the cat” is easier for other people to understand and abide than “only pet him three times” or “only scratch his neck.” Give visitors a feather toy on a string to let them play with your cat safely that way instead.

If your cat bites you due to fear, you will need to do you best to avoid fearful situations for your cat. Declawed cats often bite out of fear, having had their first line of defense removed (yet another reason never to declaw a cat). Fear biters can be challenging when it comes to nail trimming, so you may need the help of a professional groomer or vet tech to learn how to humanely, safely, and in the least-stressful way possible restrain your cat and trim their nails. If your cat likes treats or canned food, rewarding him after the fearful experience can sometimes make him forget more quickly the fearful experience he had to endure for his own health.

If your cat bites due to anger/stress, you probably have some detective work to do to figure out all the causes, then see how much you can reduce or remove them. Often you can’t do much directly, like if a new barky dog moves in next door.  Creative thinking helps! Sometimes confining the cat to a small room such as a quite bedroom or bathroom for some or even all of the day for a few weeks can let them get used to the new situation more slowly, on their terms, which could be less stressful. But some cats are more stressed out being locked in a room. Each situation is so unique, if your cat is biting you because of anger/stress, we highly recommend consulting with a professional certified cat behaviorist.

Why a behaviorist and not your vet? It is rare for a regular vet to have a degree in feline behavioral medicine. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, “most veterinarians never received education in veterinary school about feline behavior, and do not have the time and resources to study all the latest research and develop behavior protocols.” However, don’t hesitate to ask your regular vet for a recommendation of a certified cat behaviorist. A good behaviorist will often work closely with their clients’ veterinarians, especially if anti-anxiety medication is indicated, and to rule out any possible underlying medical causes. 

HOW TO REACT IF YOUR CAT TRIES TO BITE YOU

The best way we’ve found to react to a cat who’s tried to bite you, no matter what the cause, is to calmly back away from the cat. (Sometimes upset cats will go after your ankles if you move quickly, or turn your back to walk away.) Leave the room, or if you live in a studio or loft leave your home, shut the door behind you, and give the cat a time-out alone for 5 minutes. If you are upset, take the time to calm down and forgive your cat, so you can re-enter as if nothing untoward has happened.

HOW TO REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOR

Does your cat like treats? Canned food? Playing with a toy? If your cat is an overstimulated biter, and let you pet him for his allotted time with no bites, you can reward him with his favorite treat, food, or game. Rewards are building blocks for long-term, positive behavior.

*IMPORTANT: Never respond to a cat biting you with a physical reprimand or punishment. PUNISHMENT WILL MAKE YOUR SITUATION WORSE. Cats respond to negativity with negativity. If your cat bites and you “tap” his nose, forcefully push him away, yell, squirt him with a water bottle, or respond with any other negative punishment, you almost guarantee the cat will try to bite you again, and likely try harder. The cat will now think he needs to defend himself, and you will most certainly have added to the .

We hope this article helps you with your biting cat!

 
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