Why Your Cat Bites

We often hear from clients about cats who bite when being pet, a reaction that can be quite confusing. Initially, the cat acts like it enjoys the physical contact and may even purr and rub against the person. However, after a variable period of time, the cat becomes agitated, turning and biting the hand that is petting it.

This reaction is often called a “go away” bite. For a period of time, the cat enjoys the interaction, but at some point the physical sensation of being stroked and scratched is no longer pleasant. The cat then endeavors to change the situation with an aggressive outburst.

It is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting. If the cat was not handled as a young kitten, or was poorly socialized, it may not be familiar with nor desire physical contact with people. Sitting nearby or on a lap does not necessarily mean the cat desires petting. 

Subtle signs of a change in motivation are usually present, but owners often miss these. The cat may show very slight changes in body posture including tail twitching, body tensing, dilated pupils, or ear movements such as flattening the ears against the head. In some cases, if you stop all physical interactions, the cat will become calmer and will not bite. In other situations, the cat may bite and then move away.

The behavior is often directed toward familiar people, but can also be displayed toward strangers. Anxiety, pain or skin conditions can all contribute to their resistance. Dental disease or other metabolic conditions or illness may increase irritability and lower the cat’s tolerance to handling. Therefore, if the behavior is new, a veterinary examination is warranted.  

Once the behavior begins, owners respond in one of a number of ways. If you respond by no longer petting the cat, you will reinforce the cat for biting. If you punish your cat or become increasingly upset or anxious, you may add to the problem, since the cat may allow petting in the future but also be anxious and nervous at the same time. This is known as conflict behavior (competing motivations).

Addressing the behavior

The first step is to become aware of the warning signals that the cat gives as it is becoming agitated, i.e. twitching tail, ears back, dilated pupils. At the very first sign of these signals, all petting and physical contact must cease. In some cases, this will prevent the aggression from escalating and may be enough to control the problem.

In other situations, it may be possible to teach the cat to tolerate increased physical contact without an aggressive response. This entails identifying the threshold for the aggressive response. The goal is to stop petting the cat before that threshold is reached, and to reward it with a tasty food tidbit for tolerance of petting. If the cat shows aggression, the petting session must be stopped. Over time it may be possible to increase the number of “pats” before the cat no longer tolerates the interactions.

In some circumstances, it is more realistic to understand and embrace the type of interaction that the cat desires. This may mean that the cat sits close by or even on your lap without physical contact. Other cats may tolerate light scratching around the neck and chin rather than long strokes down the back and sides.

Alternatively, petting can be supplemented or replaced with other types of interactions that are mutually satisfying to the owner and cat. These include play time with toys, wand toys, teaching tricks or games.

At no time should you yell at the cat or use physical punishment. These actions will tend to increase anxiety, fear and arousal rather than teach the cat not to be agitated. If the cat begins to show anxiety or aggression, calmly but quietly leave the area even if it means slowly standing up and allowing the cat to jump off your lap.

For some cats the use of pheromone diffusers (Feliway®) are quite calming and may be a useful adjunct to treatment. Keeping the cat’s nails trimmed can also diminish injury. If the problem is severe, the cat may need to be confined away from small children and people with physical disabilities or immunocompromisedimmune compromised status.