Brown and white cat biting a person's hand

Cats bite for a variety of reasons. Adult cats bite out of fear, to assert dominance, or to demand attention. Kittens bite, mouth, and paw things to explore their world—they’re all natural behaviors. But while a kitten bite may be cute, an adult cat bite can be painful. Allowing a cat of any age to bite as often as they wish could lead to many painful bites for the owner later and an added risk when it comes to getting your cat to do anything, from taking a medication to visiting the vet.

With some training, cats can learn to inhibit the force of their bites and to use soft paws without claws. Your cat can still nibble and play-smack you with a soft paw and enjoy a kitty-correct game without drawing blood.

Why Do Cats Bite?

Cats and kittens may bite for very different reasons, and it’s important to distinguish between them to help curb the biting. A kitten usually bites because of a socialization issue, while an adult cat may bite for a different reason.

Kittens develop good manners through interaction with other kittens and their mother; other cats won’t put up with being hurt. Too often kittens go to new homes before they’ve learned these important lessons and their owners need to teach them. Kittens don’t know that teeth and claws hurt unless you explain it in kitty language the way a mother would.

Begin training as soon as you get your kitten or cat. A well-socialized adult cat that knows the rules of cat play teaches the best lessons to kittens. Kittens can also bite as a way of communicating a need, as a way of exploring their environment, or because they are teething.

For adult cats, there may be a few reasons for biting:

  • It could be to assert dominance or respond to a threat. If a cat bites and then doesn’t back down, this could be the case.
  • Some cats bite to stop unwanted action or behaviors by humans or other animals, especially if this was effective in the past. For example if they previously bit while having their nails trimmed and then the nail trimming stopped, they may have learned that is an effective tool.
  • Some cats bite as a form of communication or a demand for attention. Instead of meowing, they bite. If a cat nips you and then tries to lead you to an activity, such as playing with a toy, this could be the reason.

How to Stop Biting

While you may not be able to prevent your cat from ever biting again, there are some techniques you can try. You'll likely have to tailor your response to the age of your cat (older cat versus kitten) and the reason for the biting (dominance assertion versus communication).

  • Maintain consistent responses and make sure that all family members and visitors follow the same rules. If the cat gets mixed messages, it will be harder for you to enact your training.
  • Never allow your kitten or cat to play with your bare hands, fingers, or toes. All cats should be taught that hands are not toys. If you offer your hands as toys, you’re encouraging a risky habit. 
  • Offer an appropriate, interactive toy for the cat to bite. Stuffed animals are a hit with many cats. There should be a variety of toys (at least three) available so your cat does not get bored. Toys that dispense treats are a great way to keep their environment enriched and encourage appropriate play behavior by rewarding play with appropriate objects.
  • Continually and gently praise your cat for soft paws (claws withheld) or a soft mouth, saying, “Good paws,” or “good mouth!” If the claws come out or the mouthing hurts, make a noise and pull your hand away just as another cat or kitten would to stop the games. Use this as a distraction to stop the behavior, not as a punishment.
  • If your cat bites and won’t let go, grit your teeth and push your hand and arm in toward the bite to prompt your cat to release you. Pulling away from the bite stimulates it to bite even more. Additionally, you should treat your clothing as an extension of your skin and make it off-limits, or your cat won’t learn the difference between clawing your jeans and nailing your bare legs.
  • Train replacement behavior. Fo example, if your cat becomes over excited and attacks your feet when you walk into a room, teach him to sit and reward him for it. Then, when you come into a room, he will want to sit to get a reward. You can clicker train by pairing a reward like food with a click from a clicker. Eventually your cat will learn to associate the click with the reward and food treats will no longer be necessary.
  • Avoid physical punishment, which only makes cats more aroused and more likely to fight back and protect themselves or engage in rough play.

How to Treat a Cat Bite

Cat bites are dangerous to you and other pets. They can cause serious infection and should be treated immediately. If a cat bites you, see a doctor as soon as possible. Up to 75 percent of cat bites introduce harmful bacteria into the body, including Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pasteurella species. Cat scratch fever, which comes from Bartonella henselae bacteria, may also be transmitted via cat bite.

Signs of infection may manifest in a couple of hours and are particularly risky for hands, joints, and tendons. Take immediate action if a cat bites you:

  • Flush out the bacteria from the cat bite by pressing on the wound. This could cause more bleeding, but will also help to force the bacteria out of the body.
  • Thoroughly wash the wound with soap and water. Use a clean cloth to wipe the wound.
  • See a doctor, who will likely examine and rewash the wound. She may prescribe antibiotics, stitch the wound if necessary, and administer a tetanus booster vaccine if yours is out of date.

After the doctor's examination, follow her care plan and keep the wound area clean. Watch for any signs of infection, including redness, oozing, swelling, pain, or fever, and if you spot any, see the doctor again right away.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

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