A cat will bite:

  • while playing.
  • if she is startled and frightened.
  • if she is aggressive.
  • if she is injured or in pain.
  • if she doesn’t recognize you.

When a kitten is raised with litter-mates, she is able to learn appropriate play.  Most importantly, the responses of her companion kittens teach her how to inhibit her bites.  Similar lessons are taught by her mother.  The mother also teaches the kitten about hunting, including how to select appropriate targets.

When a kitten bites and pounces upon your hands (or feet) in the context of play, then the behavior is generally described as play aggression.  The kitten probably looks as though she is playing.  Staring and pouncing are often followed by leaping or racing away.

As the kitten engages in this behavior, she probably doesn’t growl or hiss.  Her ears are probably forward rather than pinned back, and her fur is flat.  The playful kitten should be easily interrupted.  That is a key to confirming that the behavior is indeed play-based aggression.

Even though the kitten may believe that she is playing, serious injury can result.  When the skin has been broken, so have the rules of play.  It may be cute to you when she is a tiny kitten, but keep in mind that kittens grow up and that means they can bite much harder and do considerable damage with larger, adult teeth.

You must teach your kitten that biting is not fun and certainly unacceptable behavior.  Keep a couple of toys handy as “bite toys”.  Cats like to bite soft things, so a stuffed sock or some stuffed toys are good substitutes for your hands and feet.  Use these toys when you play with your kitten (or cat) and when she starts to bite you, simply put one in her mouth.

Sometimes this is not enough.  A “time-out” may be needed.  Either turn away and leave the room, thus withdrawing yourself from your cat, or place her in another room (preferably a small room) and close the door.  Sometimes turning the lights off in this room will help calm her down.  Leave her in this room for ten to fifteen minutes–no longer.  She’ll calm down in this time frame.  Then you can let her out.  If the biting behavior begins again, put your cat back into isolation for another ten to fifteen minutes.  She is smart and will get the message.  She craves your attention and interaction.  If her biting takes this away, she’ll stop biting.

Some cats bite in an unpredictable manner.  Then you might want to consider carrying a small squirt gun filled with water, or a can of compressed air (that can be purchased at a pet store).  Simply squirt her every time she bites, being careful not to aim at her face–you don’t want to hurt her eyes.

Even the few cats who like water will not like the squirt gun.  You must be consistent and squirt her every time she bites.  She will stop biting after several squirts.  A cat will no longer pursue any behavior that always leads to a distasteful event.

Cat bites are dangerous as well as painful.  The chance of infection from a cat bite is very high.  If you are bitten, always be sure to treat the injury as soon as possible.

Confrontational approaches are not likely to resolve the problem.  They often make aggression worse.  As the kitten or cat begins to anticipate a threat or challenge, simple play-based aggression can develop into fear-based aggression.

Never encourage your cat to chase your hands.  Wand toys may be used, or toys may be pulled on a string or tossed.

A second tool to manage play aggression is to try to anticipate the behavior.  Often, cats will pounce while we are engaged in a particular behavior ourselves.  For instance, some cats pounce when people write, or turn the pages of a newspaper, or type on a computer.  In these cases, try to provide the cat with an appropriate play outlet before you engage in these activities.  Tie a toy to your chair before you sit down to read or type.  Or, start a kitty hunt–hide some tidbits for your cat to find while you are otherwise engaged.

There may be some circumstances in which you simply cannot work with your cat.  For instance, some cats attack hands or feet while you are asleep.  In these cases, safety dictates that the cat be physically prohibited from accessing your hands and feet when you are so vulnerable.  Lock her out of your room.  A friend of ours had a cat who delighted in grabbing her feet, hard, and even drawing blood when she went to bed and turned the lights out.  She solved her problem by wearing shoes (heavy slippers) to bed.  The cat apparently didn’t care for this change, and stopped the behavior.

Should punishment ever be used?  Once the acceptable alternatives are in place, an appropriate punishment may be applied if the behavior continues.  “Appropriate” implies that both the intensity and timing are just right.  The cat should be startled, but not overly frightened.  The punishment must be applied as soon as the cat begins the bite, or, where possible, as soon as the cat demonstrates her pre-bite posture.  For many cats, a spray of water or compressed air will interrupt the pounce.  A loud sound such as a buzzer or clicker may also work for your kitten.

If you choose to use a punishment, then use it at its proper intensity the first time around, then each and every time after that.  That is, do not give a mist, then a spritz, then a blast.  This graduated system will only serve to teach your cat to tolerate the punishment, requiring you to reach for more intense devices each time.  And eventually, you are likely to create enough fear to produce fear-based behavior that can induce aggression.

Please do not ever use your hands to correct or punish your cat.  You are trying to teach her that a behavior can have unpleasant consequences.  Your cat should never be taught that you or your hands can be dangerous.

Other types of aggression can lead to the biting or attacking of hands.  For instance, fear-based and status-based aggression can be the reason that a cat bites in response to being handled or manipulated.  Some cats, even after neutering, pounce and grab as they might do during a sexual encounter.