Why Does My Cat Bite Me?

Did your kitty mean to hurt you? Or was it just a playful nip? Here's how to tell the difference.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a cat’s teeth sinking into your skin, it makes sense you’d want to ask the question, “Why does my cat bite me?!” Sometimes it’s an aggressive bite that sends you yelping, other times it feels like more of a mild warning bite, and there are even instances where it seems like a gentle love nibble. Below, we’re discussing all three scenarios and also offering guidance on how to navigate this tricky topic.

What are the common reasons why cats bite?

The short answer to “why does my cat bite me?” is that they’re trying to tell you something. The long answer is a bit more nuanced, but we can break it down into three categories: they’re feeling annoyed or threatened, they’re trying to get your attention, or they’re playing.

“The most common reason why a cat bites you is that they aren’t enjoying the current interaction. Biting is their way to say ‘back off’ when they feel threatened [or annoyed],” says Rachel Barrack, DVM, a veterinarian at Animal Acupuncture in New York City. “Cats also may bite when playing as they are natural predators.”

Deborah S. Greco, DVM, a veterinarian and the senior research scientist for Nestle Purina Petcare, adds that a cat might also bite if they want or need something from you. In that sense, they may use biting as a means of trying to communicate that need. For example, maybe their litter box needs cleaning, they’re craving some playtime, or they are hungry.

“It’s important to carve time out of your day to play with your cat, to check that their litter box is clean, and to make sure that they have plenty of food and water to help minimize the biting,” says Dr. Greco. (Here’s a point to ponder while your kitty is napping—what do cats dream about?)

Do certain behaviours trigger my cat biting me?

As mentioned above, a common reason why cats bite is that they are afraid, angry, or annoyed. “This makes it especially important never to tease your cat, which can be frustrating and threatening,” says Dr. Greco. “Also, if your cat has a medical condition, they may bite because of the pain they’re feeling. Whatever the reason, a cat often gives warning signs before they bite. If she is hissing, flattening her ears, or emitting a low growl, it’s time to back away.”

How common is it for cats to bite?

Generally speaking, it’s pretty common for cats to bite, and there many reasons why they may suddenly start biting, seemingly unprovoked. It’s important to understand that cat biting isn’t always because of aggressive behaviour but can happen for reasons we outlined above. (Here are 14 common “facts” about cats that are actually false.)

Do cats ever “love bite”?

A “love bite” might look like a gentle nibble or your cat gently holding their teeth on your skin without pressing too hard. This is a much more common behaviour between cats, but some cats might also do it to their owners.

“A playful nibble or love bite is very different from a truly aggressive bite that typically is in conjunction with hissing and meant to cause harm,” says Dr. Barrack. Think of it as a really weird cat way to say, “I like you!” (This is the answer to the “why do cats like boxes” question.)

Young red cat near the "cat house" in the streets of Antalya, Southern TurkeyJean-Philippe Tournut/Getty Images

Is a cat bite ever dangerous?

Given how small domestic cats are, you’d think that a bite wouldn’t be a big deal. That’s not the case, however. Dr. Greco says, “Cat bites are extremely dangerous due to the bacteria present in a cat’s mouth! If your cat bites you and it breaks the skin, you must clean the bite immediately with warm soapy water.”

She also recommends seeing a doctor for antibiotics, especially if the bite caused bleeding or if you notice that the wound site stays red and inflamed. On that note, in the event another pet (including another cat) is bitten, a visit to the vet is also in order. Bottom line: never ignore a cat bite. (Can cats get coronavirus?)

Are there ways to discourage a cat from biting me?

The simplest way to reduce your cat’s biting behaviour is to avoid doing the things that make them bite in the first place. For example, if you notice your cat bites you when you pick them up a certain way, that’s their way of saying, “I don’t like this!” Ceasing that particular action will prevent biting in that scenario.

If your cat bites a lot when you play together, Dr. Barrack recommends providing toys that your cat can bite and play with instead of you. Continue to play with them but use a toy as the “middleman” so to speak. “You can also reward them when playing with their paws and not play biting. Always reinforce positive behaviours,” she says. That might look like head scratches, positive talking, or even a treat. (These are the seven reasons why cats clean themselves so much.)

When should you talk to your vet about cat biting?

“Should your pet suddenly show changes in behaviour—such as aggression which includes biting—veterinary attention is required to determine if there is an underlying medical condition causing this behaviour,” says Dr. Barrack. A veterinarian can also help you curb the biting issue if it is simply behaviour-based.

Next, here are the 12 cat breeds that get along with dogs.

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