Why a Cat Bites You, and What to Do

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It happened seemingly out of nowhere. Everything seemed nice and comfy with your cat and then suddenly, wham! They sank their teeth into your hand. Or you were hand wrestling with your cat and, ouch! They grabbed your hand and bit it. Or you were doing your best to be careful with a frightened cat, and they attacked and bit you anyway.

Let’s look into cat bites — the why’s, the dangers, and importantly, how to avoid them.

Cat Bite Facts

Cat bites are nothing to laugh at. A cat’s mouth is full of dangerous bacteria. In fact, there’s just one common animal with more bacteria: humans! So while you don’t want a cat to bite you, you definitely don’t want a human to either.

Why Cat Bites Can Be Worse Than Dog Bites

It all boils down to anatomy. Dog teeth are bigger than cat teeth. If a dog bites you, their teeth will most likely tear your flesh, leaving an ugly, although relatively shallow wound.

Cats, on the other hand, have small, very sharp teeth. When they bite, they can send poisonous bacteria deep into the wound. Sometimes the bacteria gets deposited into joints and tendon sheaths, making an infection more severe. Bites to the hand and wrist are most likely to end up in hospitalization.

You really don’t want a cat to bite you, even in play! So let’s see why we kitties do it, and how to avoid it.

Why a Cat Bites

The reasons cats may bite you range from affectionate to aggressive. This may be why humans sometimes have a hard time figuring out what is going on. But believe me, cats nearly always give you warnings before biting.

Here are the most common signals that teeth are about to dig in:

  • Ears go flat
  • Eyes dilate
  • If the cat is purring, they stop. Or their purrs get louder with a growly undertone
  • Growling or hissing
  • Twitching skin on back
  • Tail whipping back and forth
  • They are focusing on a body part, like they are considering attacking it
  • They stop interacting with you
  • They back away from you fearfully. Their back may be arched or fur on back or tail puffed out.

Never continue interacting with a cat that is doing any of these. They do not want to engage with you. They do not want comforting words or touches. They want to be left alone to calm down on their own.

Situations That Risk a Cat Biting

Here are different situations in which you may get bit.

Play Aggression

Somali cat fiercely biting a toy

Uh-oh, either you or someone else taught your cat that hands are toys. Which may have been cute when they were two months old. But the bigger they get, the more those claws and teeth can hurt! And a cat can get carried away quickly and bite you much harder than they meant to.

How to avoid it

If your cat thinks your hand or other body part is a toy, they need to unlearn that. If your cat tries to play with your hand, replace it with a stuffed toy or a catnip kicker. If they insist on going for your hand, walk away and refuse to engage with them. It may take some time, but eventually they’ll see no benefit in continuing a behavior that’s unsatisfying for them.

If your cat is an ankle attacker, distract them by tossing something they really like away from you — a treat or a favorite toy. If you really want to work on breaking this habit, start training them to sit still for a treat. If they know they will get a reward when they stay still instead of attacking you, they will learn.

Love Bites and Bites During Petting

A gentle love bite — one that doesn’t even come close to breaking skin — is sweet. But what if your cat really chomps down? And what about cats that bite you seemingly out of the blue while you’re petting them? Those you definitely don’t want.

If a cat is too rough with the love bites, freeze when it happens, and don’t react. Movement will resemble prey and they’ll instinctively bite down harder. When there is no reaction, the cat is more likely to let go more quickly.

If a cat bites you unexpectedly during petting, it comes from being over stimulated. And chances are they were giving off signals ahead of time that you missed. Look at the list above and take note, especially when it comes to ears going flat, loud purr-growling, skin twitching and tail flicking. Observe your cat carefully during petting sessions, and stop as soon as you see a hint of any of these behaviors.

Treat Bites

Somali cat taking a treat from human fingers

I have to mention this one because the one time my human had to go to urgent care was because Binga bit her thumb! She thought it was part of a treat she was trying to give her.

Never feed a cat with your fingers! Only use the palm of your hand or a spoon or other treat-dispensing tool. Although my human breaks this rule regularly with me (I’m super gentle), she tries really hard not to do it at shows, or where children are present. If a child wants to give me a treat, she always places it in the palm of their hand for me to take.

And if you’ve noticed, whenever she gives the peach kitty treats by hand, she places it on her flat, outstretched fingers. That’s because he doesn’t know the difference between fingers and food. And even though your cat may not be semi or mostly feral like he is, they still may forget in the excitement of getting something tasty.

Biting as Aggression

If a cat is showing signs of fear or aggression, you are definitely in danger of getting bitten. The best thing you can do is to stay away from the cat until they calm down. And while you are letting them do that, try to figure out a solution for their behavior. Is this just a temporary situation, or is the cat’s territory being threatened by another creature, either inside the house or outside the windows or doors? You need to take measures to make the cat feel safe again.

If the problem is ongoing, you may need to consult a cat behaviorist. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.

There are also rare and unfortunate situations where the cat is aggressive because of a neurological condition. This is another time to consult with your vet.

Bites as Signs of Pain

As you probably know, cats hide their pain very well. And sometimes, if a cat bites you, it’s because you’ve touched an area that is painful to them. Sometimes it’s because they are feeling unwell in general, too. And elderly cats get aches and pains. Even if they’ve never bitten you before, they may if they are hurting, or suffering from feline dementia. In any of these cases, it’s usually pretty clear that the problem requires a consultation, and possibly treatment from a veterinarian.

One other case in which a cat may bite is that they are deaf and you have startled them. If you know your cat is deaf, always make sure to gently tap the surface on which they are lying, and only touch them when they have acknowledged you. If you have an older cat that is acting out, they may be going deaf, and you will need to adjust your actions around them accordingly. Both Boodie and Binga lost most of their hearing as they aged.

What to Do if a Cat Bites You

As I mentioned above, don’t move or react. A cat is more likely to let go if you keep still. Alternately, another thing you can do is gently push your hand or arm — whatever body part the cat is biting — in the direction of their teeth instead of away. Even though it is counterintuitive, it makes it more likely that the cat will let go.

Once you’ve gotten your body part back from your cat, if they have broken skin, the first thing you should do is squeeze around the wound to make blood (and bacteria) drain out of it. And you are doing this as you are heading to a sink to wash the wound with soap and water. Do this under faucet pressure for five minutes or more. Then head to urgent care and have the wound looked at immediately. Fangs leave puncture wounds with bacteria that goes too deep for home treatment and even a wound that does not look bad can easily become infected. It’s way better to be safe than sorry.

One thing to not do with a cat bite is cover it with an ointment. Ointments such as Neosporin will keep the wound from draining and make any infection worse. Just wash it well and have a doctor take care of it.

One Last Note

Never, ever punish a cat for biting you! They have bitten you for reasons even they may not fully understand. And aggressive cats will only act more out of fear if someone tries to punish them for trying to protect themselves. Use the solutions above instead. And if worse comes to worse, consult a vet or a cat behaviorist. Sometimes expert advice is the best approach.

I hope this helps! Have you ever dealt with a cat bite? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Here are some other posts about cat behavior you may want to check out:

Why a Cat Bites You, and What to Do

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