Q: My daughter adopted a 1-year-old female cat. She is sweet but has a bad habit of biting that actually breaks the skin. A friend also has this problem with her 6-month-old female cat. Why do they behave like that and how do you control it?
— P. H. Stow
A: Do the kitties you mention bite when they are playing, or when they are being petted? Unfortunately, cats have a limited number of ways to express themselves to us, and biting is sometimes one of the ways that they communicate.
Many of us have had the frustrating experience of having a cat seek you out for attention, only to turn and bite the hand that pets it. This is a fairly common form of aggression that comes from becoming overstimulated. To make a human analogy, have you ever been tickled to the point of lashing out or crying “Uncle?” In my mind, that is what is happening when cats want to be petted but then suddenly can’t handle it and strike out or bite. Some cats are very sensitive on their lower backs near their tails, others on their tails themselves. Many cats are very sensitive on their bellies — touching a cat there often leads to an almost reflexive curling up and attack mode.
To stop this behavior is tricky, because it means paying a lot of attention to when and why the cat bites. Watch body language closely — usually cats have more subtle warning signs prior to biting. These can include whipping their tail back and forth, holding their ears back, and other body postures. If you see any of these signs, stop petting and hopefully you can avoid the cat calling “Uncle” and biting you. Does the cat only bite when you touch its lower back or tail? Restrict your petting to just the head and face, in that case.
If a cat is biting you when it is playing, invest in some toys that put distance between your hands and the cat (string toys, laser pointers, etc). It is important to avoid letting a cat attack your hands when it is playing— it sets the cat up to use this as a form of communication, and can be a bad habit that is hard to break.
It is important to note that punishment, such as flicking the cat in the nose or yelling at the cat, is not effective in stopping this behavior. The cat is already overstimulated; these actions only tend to make the problem worse. The best way to handle this problem is to recognize when the cat has had enough, and stop any physical interaction until he or she calms down. Often, with patience, you can help a cat become more tolerant of physical attention. And remember, a cat may be seeking you out to sit in your lap or the like because it wants to be with you, but it may not be able to handle tons of petting.
I hope this helps your interactions with your daughter’s and friend’s cats become more pleasant and less injury prone.
— Dr. Meg Geldhof
PetFix Northeast Ohio
Mobile spay and neuter clinic
Please send questions about your pet to Kathy Antoniotti at the Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name and address and a daytime phone number where you can be reached. Questions will be forwarded to an expert best suited to address your pet issue. Phoned-in messages will not be taken.