Your little bundle of fur is such a joy. But there is more to him than fur…teeth, for example. He seems compelled to bite you. Why does an otherwise sweet feline do this?
Cats bite for a wide variety of reasons – in fact, I have a list that may or may not be an exhaustive list of reasons. There may be other reasons I am missing. Here are the reasons of which I am aware:
- Playfulness: Your kitty bites when playing with you. This is especially prevalent in kittens, of course. They play non-stop and absolutely EVERYTHING is a toy to them. It is critical at this stage of their development to teach them that human body parts are not toys. Many adult cats did not learn this lesson as kittens and still like to use human body parts as toys – which their human companions find disconcerting (and painful!). These kitties need their attention diverted to real toys. Sometimes what starts out innocent crosses the boundary between fun and pain. Cats also bite when they are generally overstimulated, but I would put this into the play category, since it is pretty much the same manifestation.
- Love Bites: Some cats will give their companions gentle love bites as a sign of affection, and often this is a natural progression that stems out of licking, which is more of a grooming behavior. You should feel honored by this kind of biting!
- Attention-Seeking: This kind of biting is your cat’s way of saying, “This is the only way I can get your attention because you don’t understand my language, Stupid!!! Pay attention to me!” This is the kind of biting most frequent in my household, and generally happens when Josie has followed me into the bathroom. She usually chooses a bare patch of skin to bite – generally it is my upper thigh, because that is the part that is exposed and she can reach it. When Josie does it, it usually means that I am not petting her in the manner that she wants me to pet her…perhaps my attention is focused on some electronic device like my Smart Phone, on which I am checking my emails or something, and my focus is not where it should be. She will let me know when that is the case. Apparently my dad’s cat Speedway also bites for this reason, since when I told him about this blog topic, he was absolutely convinced that attention-seeking is the ONLY reason that cats bite. I spent the next 10 minutes making my case, but I’m not sure I convinced him.
- Substitute for Claws: Many declawed cats will start using their teeth as a substitute for their claws after their claws are removed. Claws are such a big part of being feline and most cats really do miss having them. I am a big proponent of finding alternatives to declawing, and this is one of the arguments I would use to make my point if I were debating with you about the subject. Of course, some people don’t have the option – their cats come to them already declawed and there is nothing that can be done about that. If your kitty falls into this category, please be compassionate and patient. While I cannot condone allowing the biting because that would be irresponsible, your cat is already having a hard time adjusting if she is biting as a substitute for clawing, so cut her some emotional slack. Correct her for the behavior, but please be gentle and loving about it.
- Warning: This happens a lot when kitty wants to tell you that you are crossing a boundary. For example, many cats do not like to be touched on the stomach and will issue a warning bite when you cross this line. Your cat doesn’t want to hurt you, and therefore the bite is usually soft and controlled – unless you persist, despite the warning bites. The more you persist, the more intense the biting will become. Heed the warnings. Your cat is communicating with you respectfully. Return the respect by responding appropriately.
- Anger/Aggression: Unless you did not heed the warnings above, this usually wouldn’t be directed at you by your own cat, but it is a reason that a cat might bite a human. Occasionally cats simply get angry and irritated with their own humans and will bite them out of anger, but it is pretty rare. However, there may be genuine animosity between a cat and a human, and sometimes the person doesn’t understand why the cat is so angry with him or her. If this is the case it is probably because there is some kind of misunderstanding and some way in which either the cat’s needs are not being met or the cat is being unintentionally offended. There is a really interesting and helpful television show about this on Animal Planet called “My Cat From Hell” that offers some great insights about these issues. I recommend checking it out if you can.
- Fear: The fear response in cats will definitely cause biting. Feral cats are terrified of humans and when backed into a corner with no escape will bite as a defense mechanism. Feral or not, any cat will bite in self-defense. Teeth are not only useful for ripping apart prey, after all. They are useful for self-defense.
- Instinctive Reaction to Pain: This is, of course, not a normal reason that your cat would bite, and certainly not a reason why people would be looking up this question, because if you see a cat doing this, it is obvious why they are biting. I only include it here because it was another reason I thought of and I didn’t want to leave it off the list. It is instinctive to try and get rid of pain, and cats use their mouths the way we use our hands, so naturally they try to bite it away.
With the exception of aggressive and fear biting, your kitty usually does not mean to hurt you when she bites you. Cats interpret biting differently than humans do, since their bodies respond differently to the feeling of being bitten than ours do. Quite simply, we feel the pain more sharply than they do, due to our lack of a thick protective layer of fur and a different nerve structure. Since they don’t feel the pain the same way we do, they don’t necessarily understand our severe reactions to it. In fact, biting is even part of their mating ritual, so in that context it is even used to elicit a sexual response.
So since the interpretation is an issue, how do you communicate to your cat that it is not okay to bite you? Remember the warning bite? It’s all about a mutually respectful relationship with your feline friend. It is not appropriate to hit or strike your kitty. Startling your cat with a loud noise (such as loudly saying “no bite!”) and withdrawing your hand (or other body part) should get the message across to your cat to stop. After that initial correction, consistency is crucial. Make sure to correct immediately and in the same way every time. Your cat will get it. Cats are smart and very capable of learning. They may test you to find out if you mean it – Josie still tests me sometimes with the attention-seeking bite. I can tell that she has learned that I don’t want her biting me, but she does still test me occasionally…and I admit that I don’t always follow my own advice. Sometimes I am a little slow on the correction – that just shows that she is probably smarter than I am!!