Why does my cat bite me? 8 causes and how to stop it

angry cat
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cats communicate in mysterious ways and can often leave you wondering why does my cat bite me when I love them and care for them? Cat communication and behavior is a truly fascinating topic and interestingly biting is one of the most common cat behavior problems seen.

It might seem odd how one moment they are letting you pet them or sit next to them, maybe you are simply passing by them but the next moment they are latching onto your hand, arm or going for your ankle trying to bite it. This isn't random behavior but a form of cat communication and it is worth attempting to understand what your cat is trying to say to you, for you to act appropriately with them and the situation. It can often be the case that what you think is the issue actually isn’t. Therefore, decoding their messages (by reading their behavior and state) goes a long way in solving the problem. Plus, it saves your hands, feet, arms and legs.

Also, remember cats are not little dogs and using an understanding of canine behaviors and characteristics to attempt to translate cat communication and care won’t cut it but this article does, so read on to discover what you can do to start unraveling this issue and soon you’ll be asking yourself why do cats lick you?

Is it normal for cats to bite their owners?

While this probably isn't the news you wanted to hear, it's definitely not uncommon for cats to bite their owners - but that doesn't mean they're doing it to try to hurt you. 

Although cat biting may seem like an act of aggression, it's important to remember that cats are natural born predators, so behaviors like scratching, biting, pouncing and stalking are all hardwired into their DNA.

You definitely don't want to discourage their natural instincts because biting is one way they communicate information, but if they're play biting you and you don't like it, redirect them toward their toys and reward them with a treat when they bite these instead of you to reinforce the positive behavior. 

Why does my cat bite me?

While it may seem like a pure act of aggression, most of the time, your feline friend isn't deliberately trying to cause you pain. In fact, biting is a very natural instinct for them that they use to communicate a range of different messages. Here are eight of the most common reasons your kitty is biting you...

1. Petting in the wrong place

Have you ever been lovingly stroking your feline friend (who seemed to be enjoying it) only to have them whip round and suddenly give you a nip for what seems like no reason? Your first thought was probably 'Hey! What did I do to deserve that?' but rest assured, your cat doesn't suddenly hate you. They are usually just letting you know they've had enough of all the attention for now.

It can also be because you are touching them in a place they don't feel comfortable being stroked – often their tail or stomach. To avoid these friendly nips, it's worth watching your cat's body language during petting play. Signs they may have had enough include their tail starting to twitch or their ears moving to the side.

2. Dislike of petting

Another reason for the bite may be that you happen to have a feline friend who isn't particularly fond of being stroked. Not all cats like being petted, so it's important to know where your kitty falls on the stroking scale - can they not get enough of it or do they prefer just the occasional bit of affection? 

Use your cat's body language to decide if they are ready for a petting session before you start if you want to avoid those warning nips.

Whether you get these kind of bites at the beginning or end of a grooming session it's important you don't ignore them. What starts out as a friendly nip can quickly escalate to far more aggressive biting and scratching behavior if you don't stop when they've signalled that they've had enough.

Overall, this kind of cat bite is usually nothing to worry about, however if their reaction to grooming changes suddenly and they are now always warning you off stroking them in a place where they liked being groomed before, this could signal that your cat has injured itself or there is something else wrong. 

Of course, cats are famously fickly so it may signify nothing, but if it persists, and is accompanied by hissing or growling, a trip to the vets may be in order.

A kitten biting someone's finger

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Love bites

Love bites are notoriously popular amongst cats and when you think about it, it's actually quite sweet - it's something they do with each other as a sign of affection and acceptance, so they're letting you know that they consider you part of their fur family. That being said, while it may be called a love bite, it can feel anything but loving when you're on the other end of it!

To help discourage this, when it happens let out a small cry and move away from them. This will help them understand that their love bites aren't being received in the way they were intended. 

Kittens use squeals and other high-pitched noises to indicate when play is too rough and their mother will also do the same to let them know if they're getting out of hand, so this should help your kitty understand that you don't like this behavior.

4. Cat bites when grooming

Cats also show affection by grooming those they are closest to. They use their rough tongues to clean you in a most delightful - if sandpapery - way, but during this cleaning process they can also nip and bite you. This isn't aggressive behavior, it's just part of their natural cleaning process – if they can't remove stubborn matts of hair or dirt they resort to biting it out.

Some argue your cat is biting you because they've perceived something on your skin they can't remove with their tongues, although others believe it's just them showing you love during the grooming process (as in point 2). Either way, to help stop them doing this let out a small 'ow' and move away, this should help discourage them from doing it again.

Cat biting hand

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Honing their hunting skills

Cats, especially young cats, have a need to play to practice and maintain their hunting skills. Cats are innate predators, so they need to find an outlet for this behavior. This is especially common with indoor cats – as they are denied access to the stalking grounds full of prey that they would have in the wild, so they look for alternative things to hunt – namely you!

The easy way to ween them off this is to provide them with cat toys to use instead. Interactive cat toys are a great way to get your kitty to stop attacking you and also get them healthier and more stimulated. To learn about cat play biting, have a read of this feature.

Again, you should also make it clear that biting and scratching is a no no from an early age. Yes, it's cute to have them gnawing on your wiggling toes, but it's a different matter when they are full grown and still know no better. 

As before, a medium volume high-pitched 'Ow' and moving away from them will help them get the message. You should also use toys that move or cat wands to attract their attention away from you, then reward this behavior with the best cat treats – simulating the reward they would get after eating a kill.

6. Teething pain

Kitten teething tends to start around nine weeks of age and can carry on for several months. As a way to ease the enormous discomfort they often feel during this time, cats will chew on anything they can get their paws on - including you!

Again, this is a great opportunity to teach them that your toes and fingers aren't for them to munch on by giving them the option of kitten teething toys instead – particularly those made of cloth, as they represent an alternative. You could also try keeping your fingers away from their mouth when stroking them.

7. Depression

Believe it or not, our feline friends can suffer from depression in much the same way we humans can - and they can also detect it in their owners. In fact, one study published in PLOS ONE suggests that when a cat detects that its owner is depressed, it can cause that cat to begin to act aggressively. 

Using 1.3 million medical records over a 10-year period, the University of Rennes in France found that more than 41 per cent of those who had gone to hospital with a cat bite were also treated for depression at some point. 

The link is not clear cut, however, and it is more likely that the biting behavior was due to changes in the way their owners behaved, such as reduced responsiveness – depressed individuals often make less eye contact compared to those without depression. The data is also slightly skewed, as many depressed people are advised to get a pet to help them feel calmer, so are far more likely to own a cat.

8. Fear

Cats can get scared when there is a change in routine or living conditions. Cats are not keen on change, and can feel threatened or want to escape. If they are prevented from doing so, they can attack. Fearful cats cause the most damage, so when introducing a new person or animal to your home, or planning a major refurbishment, it's important to watch your cat for changes in its behavior. 

If you notice them getting more defensive your first thought may be to comfort them to calm them down, but if they are feeling threatened when you approach, you may be doing more harm than good. Wait for your cat to come to you, and leave treats out for them to help them understand the new situation is not a cause for alarm.

Why does my cat bite me when I sleep?

Cats are nocturnal or crepuscular by nature, which means they're most active at dawn and dusk. But once darkness falls and before light starts to creep in again, our feline friends are prone to boredom - after all, there's only so much grooming you can do and they tend to prefer to nap in the day as opposed to at night.

So, what's a cat at a loose end to do with themselves? Well, annoy their sleeping owner of course! One of the best ways to wake you up is to give you a little nip, which tends to be your cat's way of signalling that they'd like you to get up and play with them or perhaps refill their cat bowl. 

One way to try to put a stop to this unwelcome behavior is to leave out one of the best automated cat toys or an interactive option that your kitty can amuse themselves with until it's time for you to get up. 

Why does my cat bite me when I pet her?

Petting-induced aggression is something that scientists are still trying to understand but there are several reasons why your cat may suddenly bite you after seemingly enjoying being stroked.

The first is that they're communicating to you that you've reached their sensitivity threshold and they're now feeling overstimulated. Repetitive petting can also create little shocks along your cat's skin and this static electricity can make continued stroking uncomfortable. 

Other forms of pain can also play a role in a cat biting while being petted. If your cat has an injury, is suffering from arthritis or is simply not feeling well, being stroked may feel more painful than pleasant. 

Why does my cat bite me when I walk by?

As a cat owner, it's highly likely you've wandered past your feline friend with your mind elsewhere only to be jolted out of your thoughts by your furkid suddenly deciding to bite your ankle.

While it may be that you've taken them by surprise and a good bite is their way of letting you know, it's more likely a bid for attention or a signal that they're in a mischievous mood and wanting to play.

Are cat bites dangerous?

If you're regularly asking, 'why does my cat bite me?' you should consider this. Aggressive cats don't hit the headlines as much as aggressive dogs, mainly because they can do a lot less damage, but that doesn't mean cat bites should be taken lightly. 

A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that of 193 patients who came in for cat bites on their hands over a three-year period, 30% had to be hospitalized for an average of 3.2 days, usually due to infection. To prevent this, immediately sterilize any cat bite that breaks the skin and visit a doctor if there are signs of persistent swelling.

The reason cat bites can become infected is due to the anatomy and physiology of cats' teeth. The enamel part of the tooth has tiny vertical grooves on its surface, within these grooves are bacteria. When your (or any) cat bites you or another cat, this bacteria is 

then transferred from the tooth surface and into your (or another cat’s) skin. Hence the subsequent infection or abscess. 

This underlines the importance of training your cat from a young age that biting isn't tolerated. It's never too late to start, and if you learn the signs of when your cat wants to be left alone and when they are ready to play, both aggressive and playful biting will soon be a thing of the past. 

Signs of aggressive behavior in cats 

In addition to biting, further signs of aggressive behavior you might see from your cat can include: 

  • Dilated pupils
  • Ears flattened backward on their head
  • Tail held erect with hairs raised
  • Arched back

How to stop a cat from biting

Kitten biting finger

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Consider medical causes

Cat aggression can be down to medical causes, especially likely if there has been a sudden change in their behavior. 

Conditions like toxoplasmosis, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, abscesses, arthritis, dental disease, rabies, trauma, and sensory decline or cognitive dysfunction in older cats can all cause your kitty to feel under attack, and so more likely to defend themselves at the slightest provocation. The first thing to do is to visit the vet to check that nothing is wrong.

2. Keep a distance

Cats usually only get aggressive if they feel threatened – usually because they are guarding their territories, defending their offspring, or they feel they need to protect themselves from attack.

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, then try to understand why your moggy feels the need to attack. Aggressive behavior signals that your cat feels trapped, and can't escape from what is threatening them.

A simple way to fix this is to keep away from your furry friend (as hard as that can be) until they come to you of their own accord – then they can't mistake your friendly overtures for threatening behavior.

Aggression caused by territorial behavior is usually triggered by change. Introducing a new cat, a cat in the household becoming sexually mature, or stray cats getting into their personal space can all cause them to go on the defensive. They also react to major disruptions in their living space – a house redecoration or a new person moving in can also make them uncomfortable enough to attack.

Again, leave them alone so they have the time to adapt to the new situation. Threatened cats aren't interested in being petted or played with, they need space to come to terms with the new situation.  

3. Don't approach an agitated cat 

Another trigger linked to territory is redirected aggression. The cat attacks you because they can't get at what they really want to attack. This can be caused by something as simple as a dog walking past the window. This isn't malicious, it's just a reflex caused by the fight or flight reflex we get too.

These attacks usually happen when you surprise them – they do not go looking for something to attack. This is why it's not a good idea to try to break up fighting cats or suddenly approach them when they are agitated. Read their body language, and if they are looking riled, leave them alone.

4. Seek a behavioral expert

Persistent cat aggression not caused by a medical condition means it's time to call in the professionals. A Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist can help you develop a plan to reduce aggression and guide you through its implementation. The ASPCA can help you find a certified trainer.

Jamie Middleton

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like TechRadar.com, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.

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