There are two basic kinds of biting and scratching behaviors in cats, and both of them are usually traceable 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: don't 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 and Scratch?
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 becomes overstimulated for one reason or another and wants to opt out of the petting session.
An annoyed cat signals its feelings with narrowed eyes and 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 an escalation.
Strange Cat Outside
Your cat may become upset at seeing a strange cat through a window and react by attacking the first thing it sees in the immediate vicinity—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, reassure your cat; spend extra time carefully petting and playing with it. Give your cat extra treats when it's able to interact calmly. In extreme cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help your cat get over its fears.
When new and unusual behavior problems arise in your cat, including aggressive biting and scratching, it could be a sign of an underlying illness. Medical causes range from undetected wounds to distress from mites or fleas to 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.
This condition first shows up in cats around a year old and 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's 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 antianxiety or antiseizure medication to help curb the seizures and other behaviors.
How to Stop Biting and Scratching
Sometimes if a cat is in the habit of biting and scratching, it's difficult to train it 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's 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 it 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 grab it again.
- Grab the cat by the scruff. This is one of the most effective forms of cat discipline. It mimics the punishment a mother cat gives to an unruly kitten. Grasp the cat by the scruff of its neck and firmly push it 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. Playful biting of hands or feet often 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 you to be aware of changes in your cat's behavior or physical condition. Try to routinely examine your cat so it's accustomed to your touching every area of its body, from head to toe. Then keep your eyes open for the warning signs of impending aggression.