Cats bite for several different reasons, and the best approach to curbing the behavior depends on the reason for it.
This common term refers to cases in which a cat tolerates a certain amount of patting or handling before suddenly chomping into the hand that pats him. For example, what a person might intend as an affectionate rub is interpreted by the cat as an invitation to play. Having watched my two furry boys bop each other in the stomach as a prelude to a wrestling match, I don’t tend to regard this sort of biting as a “behavior problem.” The challenge is to make your own intentions clearer to your cat.
My big Ragdoll, Moby, likes nothing better than a belly rub. Often he will roll or even hurl himself onto his back when I approach, in the hope that I will grant him his fondest wish. On these occasions, I am careful to stroke his belly slowly and gently, establishing and maintaining an ambience of luxury and relaxation. If I were to rub vigorously–as one would a small dog, for example–Moby would almost certainly interpret the gesture as an invitation to play and would give me a playful nip. I have lived with several other cats who behaved in the same way, responding to slower patting with relaxation and purring and to more vigorous patting with play behavior.
Another consideration for avoiding bites in the context of patting is to approach the cat when he or she is already in a relaxed state. If your cat wants to play, he or she is less likely to settle down for a pat than if you initiated a caress at a more relaxed moment.
If your cat does bite you in connection with patting, it is usually best to walk away, indicating to your cat that if he or she bites, you will not play. (When you reflect in tranquility on an incident of this kind, consider whether you are offering your cat enough opportunities for play, and be sure to initiate play sessions with toys he or she can bite or grab, but do not initiate a session immediately after a nip, unless you want your cat to signal the desire for a play session by nipping.)
In addition watch your cats for signs of over stimulation. The swishing or jerking of the tail, enlarged eyes. They typically give a sign they have had enough.
Cats use their mouths not just to bite but also to carry and grasp things. A declawed cat is especially likely to use the mouth for grabbing, given that he or she doesn’t have claws for this purpose. I believe that this behavior accounts for many of the cases in which a cat bites at the moment when one stops a patting session or tries to walk away.
One of our foster moms adds that some cats, whether declawed or not, are just mouthy. She has cared for numerous Maine Coons who gave her light “love bites.”
My girl Ragdoll, Akashi, is likely to grab at my pant leg or my ankle with either her claws or her teeth when she feels that I have ignored her for too long–for example when I have spent more time with her feline brothers than she thinks they deserve! I am reminded of toddlers who tug on their mothers clothing to drag them away from the telephone or a conversation with a neighbor. In these cases, I have discovered a gesture that works well with Akashi, for reasons I do not understand: I bend over, look into her big blue eyes, and point my finger at her face. Invariably she stops in her tracks, and usually she sniffs at my finger. I have no idea why my finger is such a powerful distraction, but I certainly am not complaining! At this point, I usually do sit down on the rug and spend time with Akashi, because I agree with her that, as the evening draws to a close, she really is entitled to quality time with her Mommy.
Of course, if your cat responds to a pointed finger by nipping it, the approach I use with Akashi might not work for you. Here are some other ideas:
- Point, or do something else distracting with your hand—make bunny ears?–from a safe distance.
- Flick the cat GENTLY on the nose. One of the most experienced foster moms at PPCR is successful with this method. Remember that the goal is to distract your cat, not to punish him or her for what was likely to have been an affectionate gesture. Never hit your cat, for any reason.
Aggression and Fear
Of course, there are cases in which a cat bites because he or she is angry or fearful. Unfortunately, even a normally friendly cat can bite if an action, such as grooming, causes discomfort. But again, the best approach is to regard this sort of biting as a signal to take things more slowly. It can take weeks or even months for a rescue cat to be trusting enough to allow handling, let alone grooming, and often it is both a kindness to the cat and in the interest of bonding to have the cat partially shaved (in a “lion cut”). Once the two of you have bonded, you will find it easier to wield the comb, especially if your first grooming practice sessions occur while your cat’s hair is still growing out. This approach is likely to be most necessary when a cat was surrendered to a shelter or rescue badly matted, or when there is evidence of past trauma related to grooming.
What to Do If You Are Bitten
In most circumstances discussed in this article, the bite your cat gives you is likely to be a surface scratch that you can wash and treat with a topical disinfectant such as Neosporin. But in the event of a deep bite, you should certainly call your doctor. In fact, if the wound is a puncture, it is especially important for you to call your doctor, because cat bites become infected very easily, and some of the possible infections can be quite severe. As minor as it might look, a deep cat bite really is cause for a call to your doctor the same day or the next; preventing infection is a simple matter of starting an appropriate antibiotic, but you must do so very promptly after the biting incident.
On the Bright Side
Many of us have found that living with cats is a splendid way to cultivate patience, and biting of all the kinds mentioned in this article usually does stop as you cultivate better communication with your cat.