Why does my cat bite me when I pet it?
Any cat owner will know that felines like their independence. Unlike dogs, they are solitary animals in the wild. This doesn’t mean they don’t require socialization, but it does mean that it’s not unusual for them to spend most of the day outside and barely greet you when they return. Conversely, eating cats can be very affectionate. We probably wouldn’t want a pet in the first place if it didn’t give us a little love.
Sometimes, however, we can get very mixed signals from our cats. They are the ones who want some pets and cuddles. We tickle them under the chin which they enjoy, belly scratches which they love, and then suddenly they come over and bite us. If you’re wondering why my cat bites me when I pet him, Cats Only delves into the mystery to explain some basic cat behaviors and when to know there may be trouble.
When biting is a game
As we know, cats are natural born hunters. Even domesticated kittens will stalk objects and enjoy their wild side when they see an insect scurry across the floor. They even stalk and play fight with their siblings as kittens to hone these innate skills. Biting is a big part of these games and knowing what is appropriate and what is not will take time.
This is why socialization is so important in these early stages of life. During the first two months, much of this will have to do with how they interact with their mother and siblings. Their mother’s influence is so important that, as a good parent, she will step in to keep them in line. This really helps a cat understand their inhibition to bite.
When a kitten is welcomed into our home, it may want to repeat these games with its new family (i.e. us and any other pets we have). This may explain why our cat bites us when we pet them as they are in ‘hunting game’ mode. It doesn’t mean they don’t like us or are trying to show aggression, it’s quite the opposite. They are treating us like family. Unfortunately, they also see our hands, arms, toes and just about anything else as fair game, so we need to be careful and not encourage bad behavior.
Biting as a warning
It is not uncommon for our cats to come up to us and rub their head and body against our legs. They may be purring and showing affection towards us, whether they just want company or need something. It is normal to want to bend down and give them a pet, so it can be quite shocking if they bite or hit us when we do so.
It is important to understand that although they seek attention, their own attention span may be quite short. Their capricious interest means that one second they are your best friend and the next they bite you to show that they want to be left alone. These bites when we pet our cat are a small warning, simply telling us that they don’t want to be touched.
It is also possible, if not likely, that your cat will bite or scratch you when you pet it because you have not accurately read its signals. These may include the following:
Ears folded back so that they are closer to your head and contract with our touch.
Restless tail wagging that is elevated.
Attempts to move away from us.
Shows a general agitated state or a heightened state of alertness.
If we see these signs, it is important to stop trying to pet them. If we don’t, it may result in a bite or a mauling. This is a lack of communication on our part, not theirs.
First of all, with a cat or any animal, we should not force petting. We can approach them appropriately, but if they show hesitation then we should not try to force them to do something they are uncomfortable with. Instead, we should let them come to us. Not indulging them may explain why they scratch or bite in the first place.
If you watch your cat, it is easy to see that they are showing affection by rubbing against us, especially if they are petting with their head. When they do this, they are releasing some appeasing hormones that can provide a pleasurable feeling. That’s why petting them on the head is one of the most rewarding for them.
Different cats will respond more positively or negatively to the places where they are petted individually. In general, however, there are some tendencies and places where cats want to be petted :
Top of the head and neck : This area, similar to the side of the face, is very receptive to our petting. Our cat usually accepts the contact willingly, but it is important to remember to stop as soon as he shows us any discomfort.
Back: stroking and scratching along a cat’s spine can elicit some of the most satiated purrs. We can even gently tickle the base of the tail, but not all cats may like this.
Paws: cats do not like to have their paws or footpads touched. This is something to avoid, especially with cats we don’t know. It is probably due to the sensitivity of a cat’s paw, just as you would feel if someone tickled under your foot.
Belly: for many cats, this is a danger zone in terms of petting. Even the most affectionate cats can react badly if they are petted here. Similar to their feet, the belly is a place of vulnerability. They may feel they are being attacked and may bite in reaction. Since your hand is in this area, they can also wrap their claws around you and give you some nasty scratches if you are not careful.
It is important to respect your cat and their personal space. This is especially true if it is a cat we are meeting for the first time. Start slowly and assess their responses, stopping at the first sign of discomfort.
The love bite
Unfortunately, cats are not always so direct in their communication. Sometimes, their bite itself can be a sign of affection. This can be confusing, but there is an essential difference between this and an aggressive act. They will take our hands, fingers or even our face and give them a gentle nibble. These bites are usually “toothless” and there will be no attempt to break the skin. They might also wrap their paws around you and pet you at the same time. Unfortunately, if a cat has not properly learned its bite inhibition, it may become overzealous and bite harder than it intends to. However, if his bites are not harmful, all you need to do is be relaxed and friendly.
When the bite is dangerous
In some cases, no matter how close our relationship, a cat bite can have dangerous implications. Because we don’t speak a direct language, it can be difficult to sense exactly their mood or their feelings toward us. This is especially so if they have been outside where something happened that we have not observed. When this happens, the cat will not tolerate petting. It can be exacerbated if they feel they are being cornered and feel they cannot escape.
Often, this situation is when the cat is in a state of fear rather than aggression. If they are in this state regularly, it is usually a sign of poor socialization or past trauma. This is why it is important to respect their distance and the cat’s own boundaries. We should not force contact or reprimand them if they attack. In these cases, it is important to start calmly. Here is a brief guide:
Let the cat approach you, perhaps luring it with a toy or treat to put it at ease.
Stroke gently and slowly without sudden movements. Start at the sides of the top of the head and do not press down. If the cat is receptive, we can increase the stroking, but don’t try to do it too soon.
Once they have begun to accept these little pets, you can start moving around on their back and see if they will respond positively to this as well.
We must also remember that a cat may want to sleep on our lap or knead us without being petted at all. If this is the case, you must respect their boundaries.
However, if an attack is triggered by trying to pet a cat, here are some steps to try:
If the cat grabs and tries to capture our arm, it is important to remove it firmly, but not to shake it roughly as this can increase aggression. You can firmly say ‘no’, but don’t lose your head.
Never attack or hit the cat in retaliation. Apart from being a form of animal abuse, it will only result in another attack back. We will also teach them that we are untrustworthy and may ruin our entire relationship. This is a much more difficult problem to solve and is not worth losing your temper over. It certainly isn’t worth causing your pet pain.
If none of the above approaches work, we may be dealing with a cat that needs outside help. If this is the case, then we need to visit a veterinarian or ethologist. A professional who studies animal behavior should be able to tell you where you are going wrong and find ways to make them more comfortable with you. It will usually involve assessing the stressors in your cat’s life and eliminating them, as well as showing them how to play properly.