Cats may bite people for various reasons. Addressing the problem effectively, or better yet, preventing it from happening in the first place, starts with identifying the underlying cause. Cats don’t bite just for the sake of biting. There’s always a reason. Some common reasons for biting may include:
Rather than labeling a cat as simply “a biter”, explore what circumstances cause the cat to feel the necessity to bite, and implement effective strategies to create more security. Give the cat other options. Here are some techniques to help you in the training process.
Identify the Cause of Your Cat’s Behavior
This will always be the first step in correcting the unwanted behavior. You can’t fix the problem if you don’t know why it’s happening. Is it pain? Is there a medical issue? The first item on your behavior checklist is to rule out any underlying medical condition. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your cat may have a medical concern, especially if the biting behavior seems unprovoked or is a change in your cat’s typical attitude.
Pay attention to your cat’s body language to pinpoint conditions that precede biting. Can you predict the triggers? For example, maybe your cat bites when being held too long or when held in a way that’s uncomfortable or even distressing. Take time to identify antecedents that typically lead to biting.
If you’re dealing with a kitten, much of the biting may be due to exploration, teething pain, or lack of training. Biting is a normal aspect of how cats hunt and protect themselves and a kitten is just learning about her emerging skills. It’s up to you to train her to what is and isn’t appropriate for biting.
Provide Appropriate Toys for Your Cat
When playing with your cat, use an interactive toy that’s based on a fishing pole design. This type of toy allows you to mimic the movements of prey to engage your cat, and it also puts a safe distance between your cat’s teeth and your hand. This way, the cat can freely stalk, pounce, and bite the appropriate object.
Don’t use small toys, such as fuzzy mice, for interactive play. Reserve small toys for your cat’s solo playtime. Any toys you use for playtime with your cat should allow a safe distance to avoid any accidental biting or even scratching.
No Rough Play
For cats, playtime is as much mental as it is physical. It’s about the controlled planning and energy bursts of a hunt. Always use a toy when playing with your cat. Never use your hands as toys, no matter how convenient and tempting it is to try to entice playtime by wiggling your fingers in your cat’s direction. It teaches your cat that biting flesh is welcomed.
The same goes for using your hands to wrestle your cat. If your cat is rolled over on her back, this isn’t an invitation for you to put your hands on her tummy to hold her to the ground or entice her into a wrestling game. This engagement encourages rough play and can cross over into defensive aggression on your cat’s part. For most cats, just touching the abdomen prompts a defensive reaction.
Use Positive, Reward-Based Training
Don’t hit, yell, or punish your cat in any physical way. To do so can create a fear of you as well as trigger defensive behavior where the cat may feel the need to protect herself by biting. Your hands should only be used for gentle touch and never as tools for punishment, or you risk damaging the bond of trust you’ve worked so hard to establish with your cat. Remember, all behaviors serve a purpose and make sense to the cat, even if they don’t make sense to you. Behaviors aren’t presented just for the heck of it, so when you punish a cat for a behavior, you simply create fear and confusion. The humane approach is to figure out why the cat performs the behavior so you can create a better option or change the circumstances, so the behavior is no longer needed.
Socialize and Desensitize
Gradually expose your cat to situations that could lead to biting, such as being touched, having someone unfamiliar in the home, or being placed in a cat carrier. Make the exposure very measured and gradual, so you remain at a level with which your cat is comfortable. You then slowly, and gently increase exposure, always rewarding the cat for taking the next step. Gently get your cat comfortable with aspects of daily life that could lead to biting if not addressed correctly, such as being around people, travel, and being touched. These are all essential because your cat will encounter unfamiliar people in life, will have to travel (most likely to the veterinary clinic), and will need to be examined, groomed, or medicated. If you gently desensitize your cat to having her ears, mouth, paws, and other body parts touched, it will make it much less stressful during nail trims and general grooming, as well as if medication is ever needed.
Let your cat control how much interaction or exposure is wanted. For example, if you’re trying to help your cat become at ease with a guest in the home, don’t pick your cat up and try to force her to be petted by the person or get too close. Let your cat set the distance, and then reward her for any positive actions. If your cat bites you every time you try to put her in the carrier for travel, leave the carrier out all the time and periodically toss treats near it and inside. Make the carrier a cozy napping area. Feed your cat her meals near, and then inside the carrier. If your cat goes in the carrier, even for a few seconds, reward her. It’s all about letting your cat have control.
Consent is also important. This involves “asking” permission before petting or handling by letting the cat know of your nearby presence and intentions. Gently speak to your cat so you don’t startle her before petting, or extend a finger for her to sniff before you touch her. If your cat is hard of hearing, tap the floor or table so she can feel the vibrations. Slowly come into her view to avoid startling her. If grooming, let the cat sniff the brush or nail trimmers and then offer a treat. Keep everything positive and calm. Read her body language to see if she’s receptive to being stroked or handled and watch for changes in body language that indicate she has had enough.
What Should You Do if Your Cat Bites You?
If you get aggressive, you’ll just elevate your cat’s reactivity, and the result could be that she bites harder.
Don’t Pull Away
If your cat has her teeth on your hand and is biting down, don’t pull away because that is how prey reacts and your cat will instinctively grip harder. Instead, gently push toward your cat. This momentarily will confuse her and she’ll release her grasp. Prey NEVER voluntarily moves toward the predator. If your cat still doesn’t release her grasp, issue a high-pitched “ouch” or other sound. Don’t yell, but rather, make a sound that confuses so she’ll loosen her grasp.
Withdraw Your Attention
Once your cat has released her grasp, remove your attention. If your cat was biting in play, stop all movement so the cat sees the fun stops when she bites the wrong object.
your job is to determine what prompted the response so you can modify your approach. This is where proper training comes in rather than reactive punishment.
Redirect to Appropriate Objects
If your cat was biting during play, redirect to an appropriate toy. If your cat is biting for attention, maybe more enrichment in the environment is needed so kitty has other outlets for her energy. As mentioned previously, it comes down to figuring out the reason for the behavior so you can create a better set-up.
Re-Evaluate Your Training Methods
Take a closer look at how you’ve been training to see what needs tweaking. Make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to interaction with the cat to prevent mixed messages.
Get Professional Help
If you’ve tried to correct biting behavior and have had no success, or if the behavior is getting worse, consult your veterinarian. You may be referred to a certified behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist or certified cat behavior consultant.
Need More Information
For more information on cat behavior and training, refer to the books by best-selling author, Pam Johnson-Bennett. Books can be found at your favorite bookstore as well as online. For your convenience, we have included links to Amazon here on our website.
This article is intended for general information purposes only and is not a replacement for your cat’s regular veterinary care. This article is not intended as a medical diagnosis. If you’re experiencing problems with your cat or have questions, contact your veterinarian.