Oh, the Betrayal of a Cat Bite

Hold me, squeeze me, leave me alone!

by Bailey Freeman
March 27, 2021
cat biting person's hand

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We’ve all been there — you’re on the couch binge-watching Schitt’s Creek, stroking the seemingly contented creature in your lap, then “OUCH, what the…did my cat just bite me? We were just vibing seconds ago!”

It’s hard not to take your cat’s treachery personally but — trust us — it’s not you. It’s not uncommon for cats to get overstimulated by over-petting, which can cause a buildup of stress hormones and static electricity. (As a rule, cats tend to prefer being pet around the head and neck; attempt long body strokes at your own risk.) And just like people, cats have affection thresholds, especially rescue kitties that may never have known human touch and can only tolerate so much. Instead of overthinking their mixed messages, read on to understand what unnerved them in the first place.

Read your cat’s body language

Cats use body language to communicate how they feel, and chances are your cat gave you some warning signs before biting you — however subtle those signals were. “We have to remember that our verbal communication is quite different from that of our animal counterparts,” says Dr. Caity Flint, DVM. “They rely much more on nonverbal cues. When those cues are ignored or misunderstood, the end result may be aggression or sharper warnings.” So how do you know when your cat has had enough? General restlessness is the first sign that something is wrong. A twitching tail, flattening of the ears, rippling skin, and a soul-crushing death stare will follow if you don’t take the hint.

Consider your cat’s health

Your cat’s health might also affect how they react to your touch. If they’re elderly, petting can exacerbate arthritic pain. Dental and skin issues might also make your cat cranky and hyper-sensitive to contact. If your cat has previously enjoyed being pet and this is a new behavior, it’s worth taking them to your vet to make sure there isn’t a health concern behind the biting. Your vet can help you “rule out medical causes and create a plan to try and correct the behavior if necessary,” says Flint. “If all else fails, your veterinarian may refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.”

Ease up on rough play

It’s tempting to roughhouse with your little tiger, but if you don’t set boundaries first, play fighting can quickly escalate into aggression, and that behavior can bleed over into other interactions with your cat. “It’s common for many pet owners to utilize their hands, especially with kittens, when playing or roughhousing. This type of play can teach your pet to see your hands as toys or reinforce the idea that the way to receive attention is to play fight,” says Flint. “It is important from a young age to always use toys and not hands.”

Take your cats cue

With both our hands and our pride wounded, it’s easy to react negatively, but take a beat and think things over. Yelling or physically responding will only justify — to your cat — biting you to begin with. Instead, stop petting your cat and give them time to chill and recalibrate. “Learn your cat’s likes, dislikes, and triggers,” says Flint. “From there, you can begin to determine what may have caused the aggression and what you can do to avoid it in the future.” If this is a common occurrence, you can use positive reinforcement to warm them to your touch and strengthen your bond. And the best way to their heart is through their stomach, so pair pets with treats, then slowly but surely increase petting times as they become more comfortable with it.

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Bailey Freeman

Bailey Freeman lives in Nashville, TN, where she works as a freelance writer, editor, content creator, and circus artist. You didn't read that wrong — when she's not writing about the world around her, she works as an aerialist and instructor (in a circus tent and everything). She's also a big fan of travel, the outdoors, and neon hair dye.