Ask A Vet: Why Does My Cat Bite Me?

Cats are a wonderful part of our lives. They make us laugh and they are interesting to watch. Their behaviors can be a source of fun and sometimes, consternation to cat lovers when we do not understand them. One of the most offensive of feline behaviors is biting.  We all know that one must never bite the hand that feeds us, but some cats seem to have missed the memo.  When cats bite their owners, it is usually not a truly aggressive bite and seldom even breaks the skin, but cat owners do take it personally and obviously do not like it.

Image Source: kniemla via Flickr
Image Source: kniemla via Flickr


Why do our cats sometimes bite us? Biting can serve many purposes and the nuances of the bite combined with the other body language of the cat can help us assume the motivation. Since we humans do not always “speak cat”, we need a little help deciphering the reasons for biting. Cats can bite for a number of reasons, from predatory behavior to self-defense and even play.

If you are playing with your cat and she is involved in a hunt/chase sequence, she might bite you accidentally or displace some of her excitement about the hunt onto you. Cats are very focused by nature on their prey and although humans can change gears very quickly, cats can easily displace aggression or predatory behavior onto a human. It does not mean that your cat wants to hunt you, only that he was involved in the hunt sequence and you came along.  Human family members are not present in the wild world and your cat still has a close genetic association with her wild ancestors.

Most cats that bite people do so in a non aggressive way, like the cat that bites randomly while being petted. A study done in Brazil found that almost half of all pet cats engage in some sort of human directed biting. 1 Their conclusion was that cats may be sensitive to certain ways of being stroked or that cats are stressed.  Wild felines engage in non-aggressive biting frequently when they live in a group. Such family groups seem to utilize biting as a form of communication or allogrooming.  None of the others seem to be surprised by biting or mouthing from another family member.

Truly aggressive biting is a safety issue and will often accompany unmistakable hallmarks, like growling, hissing, laid back ears and dilated pupils. If you believe that your cat is biting you because of aggressiveness, you should seek help from your veterinarian. The two of you may decide to consult with a veterinary behaviorist for a plan to manage this issue. Because this problem puts people and the cat at risk, don’t delay and in the meantime, try to avoid anything that will escalate a confrontation. Absolutely do not try to punish an aggressive cat.

Most cats of cats biting are innocent, but if you are not sure, please let your veterinarian know.  If your feline friend is hurting you, you both need some help and there are treatment plans that can address this issue. Don’t despair. If your cat seems to be play biting or biting as a part of grooming and you do not like it, try to distract him from the activity and replace it with something that you both enjoy, like chasing a toy or light. Be sure that your cat gets plenty of exercise too. A little patience and channeling of energy is sometimes all it takes to keep things harmonious.

  1. J Feline Med Surg. 2009 Oct;11(10):835-41. doi: 10.1016/j.jfms.2009.04.006. Epub 2009 Jul 3.Human directed aggression in Brazilian domestic cats: owner reported prevalence, contexts and risk factors. Ramos D, Mills DS.
  2. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere. 2013;41(2):117-22.[Inappropriately rough play behaviour and predatory attacks against people by a tomcat. A case report].[Article in German] Morber M, Bartels A, Erhard MH.


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