Cat bites don’t get as much media coverage — or as much scientific attention — as dog bites because they tend to occur inside the home. Moreover, people mistakenly assume that, because cats are small, they can’t do much damage. In fact, puncture wounds made by sharp feline teeth are not only painful, they can lead to serious infections. It’s important to learn how to avoid them.
Although cats sometimes appear to attack out of the blue, they always have their reasons, says Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., emeritus professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “Fear, predatory aggression, and pain top the list.”
Know the Signs. Typically, fear aggression occurs when a cat feels threatened, especially by a situation that feels inescapable. Sounds, sudden movement or touch can all be triggers. “In many cases, the cat’s hair will stand up and the tail will be all bristly or begin lashing,” Dr. Houpt says. “If a cat is excited or fearful, the pupils of his eyes will dilate. You’ll see only black instead of whatever color the cat’s eyes are.” Other easily recognized signs are crouching with the ears laid back, hissing, growling or swatting.
Avoid handling a cat showing any of these signs of fear, Dr. Houpt advises. If you’re petting your apparently contented kitty and he suddenly takes a nip at your finger, it’s possible that he dozed off and woke up feeling disoriented and trapped by your hands. Alternatively, prolonged petting can cause overstimulation in some cats. “I tell my clients that when they see the tail lashing, just stand up and let the cat drop on the floor,” Dr. Houpt says. “He’s indicating that he doesn’t want to be petted any more.” (Cats’ flexible spines will prevent injury.)
Another common source of bites is predatory aggression. Most cat play is predatory play, Dr. Houpt explains. “When you see your cat slinking across the room and he bites you as you pass by, that’s play — but it still hurts.” To avoid these predatory attacks when you walk across the room, try dangling something, such as feather, for your cat to play with. Better yet, be sure to have scheduled play times with fishing-pole type toys.
Rules for Play. Dr. Houpt urges owners to play with their cats often and set the rules for play early on. “When you get a kitten and you want to playwith him, don’t let him bite your hand. Always use toys, not your limbs, to interact with a cat.”
Redirected aggression, sometimes called displaced aggression, is more dangerous because the attack isn’t playful. It might occur, for example, if your cat is looking out the window and spots another cat outside that he can’t chase. He attacks the first creature that is nearby or approaches, which could be another pet in your household — or you.
Never try to approach or pick up a cat exhibiting signs of arousal, which include loud hissing, growling or caterwauling. In the long term, it might be necessary to eliminate the source
of stimulation, perhaps by keeping the shade down so your cat can’t see outdoors.
If your cat’s personality suddenly seems to change from docile to hostile, it’s a wise idea to pay a visit to his veterinarian. “A medical cause for aggression in cats is relatively rare, but it must always be ruled out,” says Dr. Houpt. “The primary cause of medically based aggression is pain, no matter what the source of that pain.”
Geriatric Concerns. The appearance of aggression in older animals is a particular cause for concern, Dr. Houpt says, because cats tend to mellow with age. Moreover, pain is easy to miss in geriatric felines, who tend to spend a good deal of time sleeping. You might think that your cat is simply slowing down when, in fact, he’s hurting. When the cause of your cat’s pain, such as arthritis or periodontal disease, is treated, the aggressive behavior should abate.
Dr. Houpt dispels one myth about the source of cat bites: That it is caused by declawing. Several recent studies have shown that this does not happen. “That’s not to suggest you should declaw your cat,” she says, “only that he will not be any more inclined to bite. He may just learn to hate the veterinarian.” ❖