How to Stop Cats' Biting and Scratching

Sometimes adult cats need to be retrained from behavior they learned as kittens

Kitten nibbling on orange painted toenails
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There are two basic kinds of biting and scratching behaviors in cats, and both of them are usually able to be traced back to an interaction with a human. Kittens learn to bite and scratch as a normal part of development, and if not trained early, will not know when using their claws and teeth is not allowed.

One of the first rules for human companions is "do not teach your cat that hands are toys." If you ignore this advice, those tiny claws and teeth will soon grow into razor-sharp "meat hooks," and you'll bear the scars.

Why Do Cats Bite?

Aggressive biting often happens during a petting session, when the human companion either doesn't understand or ignores the cat's body language. While some cats love to be petted for hours on end, sometimes a cat will become overstimulated for one reason or another and will want to opt out of the petting session.

An annoyed cat will signal its feelings with narrowed eyes, ears pulled back. If you wait for the inevitable tail-lashing, you've waited too long, and you may be rewarded with a bite. The rule here is to watch the cat's signals and stop whatever you're doing to prevent this behavior.

Your cat may become upset at seeing a strange cat through a window, and react by attacking the first thing it sees at hand — either you or another cat — a classic case of redirected aggression. This kind of behavior will require creative thinking on your part.

First, remove your cat to an area where it can't see the strange cat.

Next, you need to reassure your cat; spend extra time with it petting (carefully) and playing with it. Give your cat extra treats when it is able to interact calmly. In extreme cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help your cat get over his fears.

Medical Causes for Cats Biting

When new and unusual behavior problems aries in your pet, it's usually a sign of an underlying illness.

This includes aggressive biting and scratching. Medical causes could range from undetected wounds, distress from mites or fleas, or a hormonal imbalance.

If an otherwise docile cat exhibits sudden and unexplained aggressiveness toward you, especially when being handled, a visit to your veterinarian is in order.

Hyperesthesia

This condition that first shows in cats around a year old is prevalent among Siamese, Burmese and Abyssinian cats. Among the symptoms of hyperesthesia are excessive grooming and self-mutilation, unexplained and sudden aggression, and in extreme cases, seizures. 

Although there is some debate about what causes it, some veterinarians believe hyperesthesia is a neurological condition similar to panic attacks in humans. Some experts believe the attacks are triggered by stress. In any event, a cat with sudden aggressive behavior (such as biting) who experiences seizures should receive a neurological exam from a veterinary behavior specialist. 

To prevent or stop episodes of hyperesthesia once they've started, dropping a towel or blanket over the cat can help contain it. In some instances, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-seizure medication to help curb the seizures and other behaviors.

 

Prevention

Sometimes if cat is in the habit of biting and scratching, it's difficult to train them out of this behavior. It will take patience and time, but you can teach your cat that you prefer not to be the target of its attacks, even if the cat views it as playtime.

There are a few things you can do to distance yourself from play attacks by your cat.

  • Trim its claws. Claw trimming should be done regularly anyway, to keep cats' claws from becoming ingrown. There is no need ever to declaw a cat because of scratching behavior, but keeping those claws trimmed can make the rogue attack less painful for the recipient.

  • Yell "ouch." Don't scream it, but say "Ouch" loudly and clearly. While you have your cat's attention, slowly remove your hand from its clutches. Don't yank it away or the cat will think the play is on, and will grab it again.

  • Grab the cat by the scruff. This is one of the most effective forms of discipline of cats. It mimics the punishment a mother cat gives to an unruly kitten. Grasp him by the scruff of the neck and firmly push him downward, while saying "No!" in a firm tone of voice. Hold the cat in this position for only three or four seconds and release. Chances are, the cat will slink away, thoroughly chastened, to wash and recover its dignity, but will remember this lesson for a long time.

  • Redirect its attention. Often playful biting of hands or feet occurs simply because your cat is bored, and is looking for a play object. Give it 15 minutes of active play with an interactive toy

Know Your Cat

It's up to the cat owner to be aware of changes in the cat's behavior or physical condition. Try to routinely examine your cat so that it is accustomed to you touching every area of its body, from head to toe. Then, keep your eyes open for the warning signs of impending aggression.