Recently I saw a short question posted on Facebook: How do I stop my cat from biting?
I know that this person was hoping for a quick answer but unfortunately it’s not that simple. Changing any behavior in any living creature is rarely fast or simple. And there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. To start addressing an unwanted behavior, you first need to consider two separate but related things: emotional state and motivation.
Your cat’s emotional state plays a big role in their behavior. Fear is a common cause of aggression in cats. If your cat feels that they are in danger, protecting themselves is a natural response.
On top of biting or scratching out of fear, no one can learn if they are scared. You can’t change your cat’s behavior if their emotional state keeps them from thinking straight. I’m reminded of a time in school when a guest teacher brought a very large spider to class and then tried to teach us about spiders. I was so busy being scared I had no idea what the teacher was saying. Even getting my favorite candy for answering questions correctly would have had no effect on my learning that day.
Help your cat feel safe by setting up their space with lots of vertical space and safe hiding places, using play and food to build positive associations, and by respecting their boundaries. If you’re not sure if your cat is fearful, visit the page on What is Your Cat Saying?
Fear isn’t the only emotion that can cloud judgement and effect behavior. Like an impulsive teenager making bad decisions, an adolescent cat may struggle to control themselves. A solid daily routine of interactive play will help get them ready to learn good manners. Any cat who’s natural needs aren’t being met by having a safe territory and an outlet for their energy is going to have a hard time learning and changing their behavior.
Along with emotional state, motivation is the most basic “why” of the behavior. What does your cat get from biting you? The consequence of a behavior (what happens right afterwards) will affect whether or not that behavior is repeated. That means that if you say hi to me and I give you your favorite dessert, you will probably make a point of saying hi in the future. If instead I give you a bag of garbage, you might avoid me next time!
Of course, if you love garbage or hate dessert, the effects of those consequences will be different. The individual doing the behavior and receiving the consequence is the one who determines whether it causes them repeat the behavior or not (or maybe it doesn’t affect their decision). That’s why scolding your cat could be having the opposite effect intended!
All of these are examples of the consequences of the biting leading to continued biting. If you can identify your cat’s motivation for biting, you may be able to stop rewarding it. However, you still need to provide an outlet for natural behaviors (like play) and teach your cat how you do want them to act (give your cat attention for sitting on a bed near you instead of on your laptop).
It’s important to know that if you just stop rewarding your cat for previously rewarded behaviors, this can lead to the behavior getting worse for a while. Called an “extinction burst”, this is often seen by owners who try to ignore their cat in the morning instead of getting up to feed them like they normally do. Humans do it too; have you seen someone yell at and hit a broken vending machine? Suddenly finding out that you don’t get rewarded anymore (for meowing in the morning or putting a dollar in the machine) can cause a lot of frustration and stress. You can avoid this by preparing ahead of time to reward a different behavior and changing the environment to prevent the unwanted behavior.
And what if you just try to punish these behaviors instead? Unfortunately punishment can cause fear, aggression, and even health issues. Luckily, there are more humane and also more effective tools. Make sure you are meeting your cat’s natural needs with a routine of daily play. Use management to prevent a situation completely or teach your cat that you will reward a different behavior instead.
But Where Do I Start?
Ok, I’ve told you that there aren’t simple answers and given you some things to think about but you’re still looking for some specifics. Depending on the underlying reasons, biting can be a complex and serious issue so these recommendations can only capture first steps in the process. A behavior consultant can provide more in-depth and personalized recommendations.
New or Unexpected Biting: If your cat is suddenly biting when they didn’t previously, they may have a medical condition that is causing pain. Any change in behavior warrants a vet visit.
Fearful/Defensive Biting: Address stress and any perceived threats. Respect your cat’s boundaries and don’t push them past their limits. Build positive associations with food and play (but don’t bribe or lure with food!).
Attention/Demand Biting: Often called “love nips” by owners who don’t mind it, this type of behavior can be addressed by rewarding an alternative behavior. For example: Petting and giving treats only after your cat gives a polite nose-to-finger greeting.
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.