Bad-Mouth Bootsie: Breaking the Biting Habit

by Andrea Dobras

In this issue of OC News, we’ll be addressing the topic of cats who bite. As we will see, cats bite for a variety of reasons. It is a way of communicating that, when effective, can quickly get out of hand and become their favored method of communication. There are two main points to consider in your efforts to break biting behavior: (1) Why is my cat biting? (2) How do I stop the biting?

Rub my belly. It will be extremely painful…for you.

There are four main types of activities that induce biting. They are easy to remember as the 4Ps: Petting, Pain, Play and Prey. Petting-induced biting is caused by overstimulation due to excessive petting. Clearly, you’ve missed her warning signs telling you enough is enough. Did she twitch her skin, thump or lash her tail, vocalize her displeasure, stop purring, rotate her ears back, shift her body position or glance at your hand that is petting her? If so, I hate to say it, but you had it coming.

I hear ya, “Holy high-maintenance!!! You mean to tell me that I have to watch out for all these behaviors as she sits on my lap when I watch TV?” Yes, sorry. In fact, for your own safety, we recommend not absentmindedly petting your cat if she’s a biter. Another thing to watch out for is where on your cat’s body you are petting them. Most cats have areas of caution which include the stomach, rear area and feet. It’s also important to stroke the fur in the direction it lays; no one likes a messy ‘do!

Pain-induced biting is self-explanatory. If you suspect that your cat may be injured, or her biting behavior is completely new and unexplained by any of the other causes, it could be a health issue, and having her evaluated by a veterinarian will be your best bet.

Play-induced biting takes place when you are engaging your cat in play. Let’s step back a minute and take a look at how you play with your cat. Are you being too energetic with your style, frustrating her by never letting her catch the toy bird on the end of the string, irritating her by putting it right in her face, or using your hands/fingers as the moving object? If so, let’s take it down a notch. We all need a little self-esteem boost every now and then. Let her win and follow her lead in setting the pace of her own activity. You may also want to increase the number of play sessions you have per day. Perhaps she has an overabundance of energy and she takes her level of play too far. A quick fix for play biting is to stop the game, walk away, let her calm down and then return at a more low-key level.

Prey/Hunting-induced biting is something that we’ve all probably seen or experienced at one time with our cat. There you are, settling in for the night and you move your foot a little too quickly from one side to the other under the comforter. Pouncing and stalking are normal, healthy behaviors that are fine during a play session or when using a toy, but not when it comes to your ankle. Prey/hunting biting has the potential to quickly turn aggressive, and finding a proper outlet to satisfy their prey drive is key. Solutions to help manage their need to hunt include having several daily play sessions, amusing them with contraptions such as collapsible tunnels (cats are natural-born investigators), toys hidden in boxes or paper bags, and puzzle feeders (also called exercise feeders, which replicate the stimulation that naturally comes with working for food, with food being the end reward).

While the 4Ps address the most common issues that cause cats to bite, I would be doing you a disservice by not mentioning that there are cats whose behavior is based on aggression.

Fear aggression is the most common type of feline aggression. Some cats are inherently shy and react aggressively every time they become frightened. It can also result from poor socialization, and in such cases, punishment actually exacerbates the situation. Cats can be fearful of people, places, other cats, traveling, unsettling noises, and even odors.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused and agitated by an animal or person he cannot directly respond to, due to their being some sort of barrier, such as a window, between them. His frustration at being unable to get to the trigger of his agitation causes him to lash out at whomever approaches him, whether it be another cat, dog, or a person. Interestingly, there can be a significant time interval between the initial arousal and the redirected aggression – sometimes hours – which explains why some pet parents characterize the cat’s aggression as “out of the blue.”
If your cat is showing signs of fear aggression or redirected aggression, these are potential biting situations, and you should consult a behavioral professional immediately.

In our next issue, and for future issues, I will be reporting on feline issues along with Karen Aseltine, who will be serving as the new column expert. We are sure readers will enjoy the many tips Karen has to share, based on her experience as our Ashford Sanctuary’s Feline Behavior Manager.