Image via Rui Serra Maia/Shutterstock.com
By Nancy Dunham
The best way to avoid cat bites is to learn the cat behavior signals that indicate that a cat is starting to feel uncomfortable in a particular situation. By understanding your cat’s body language, you can avoid scenarios that create stress and ensure that your relationship with your cat gets stronger and healthier.
“Oftentimes, cat aggression and cat biting is caused by miscommunication between species,” said Russell Hartstein, certified pet behaviorist and CEO of FunPawCare in Los Angeles, California. Cat behavior and body language signals are great indicators of a cat’s mood, and they can alert you to your cat’s comfort level in the moment.
The Danger of Cat Bites
Although dog bites grab most of the headlines, cat bites are not without consequence. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 to 80 percent of cat bites become infected. Cat bites can be serious even if they initially appear mild.
Besides the risk of cat bites becoming infected, contracting rabies is also a cause of concern. The CDC states that in 2014, over four times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs. This disparity is attributed to cat owners not bringing their pet to see a veterinarian for proper vaccinations (including for rabies) as often as dog owners do.
That is just one reason why providing your cat with regular veterinary care, including any necessary vaccines, is such a vital part of being a responsible cat owner.
How Do I Know If I Am at Risk of My Cat Biting Me or Others?
Most cats bite only as a last resort. Prior to biting, they will generally give plenty of signals through their behavior and body language to let you know they need some space.
Think of the situation from your cat’s point of view. In his mind, he has told you several times that he needs you to stop whatever it is that scaring him or stressing him out. You’re ignoring him, so you’ve left him no recourse but to take charge.
By learning how to read cat behavioral cues, you can prevent your cat from feeling the need to bite.
Pamela Uncles, M.Ed., CDBC at Companion Animal Behavior in the Washington, D.C. Metro area, offers these tips for identifying warning signs in cats:
Tail-twitching. If a cat begins to twitch his tail, he is becoming agitated and does not want to be bothered.
Flattened ears. Look for ears that are flattened to the side and to the back.
Eye shape. Eyes that are slanted, squinted, or have an extremely round appearance with dilated pupils can indicate that a cat is stressed or afraid.
Whisker placement. The whiskers of agitated cats may be held back against the face.
Rolling on his back. A cat may roll onto his back if he feels threatened. Some people may perceive this as submission, such as when a dog rolls onto his back, but cats will sometimes do this so they can bite and scratch with all four feet.
Hunched position. Agitated cats may take hunched positions with raised fur to make themselves look larger and more intimidating.
Hissing and growling. These are some of the last warnings that a cat will give before attacking. Not every cat will hiss or growl before biting.
What Human Behavior Can Lead to Cat Bites and Aggression?
“It is a serious problem when a person fails to read a cat’s body language,” says Dr. Valarie Tynes, DVM, President of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a veterinary services specialist with Ceva Animal Health in Sweetwater, Texas. “Unfortunately a cat’s body language can be subtle and easily missed by pet owners.”
“As a general rule of thumb, if a cat is walking away from you, it means they do not want to interact with you … Unfortunately, a large percentage of people will approach an animal even if it walks away from them.”
“If you want to show friendly behavior in cat language, you need to sit and let the cat come to you,” says Dr. Tynes. If your cat initiates contact by jumping on your lap or sitting nearby and giving you a friendly nudge with his head, it should be safe to pet him. But still watch his body language. Some cats only enjoy being petted for short periods of time before they need a break. Never chase, grab or hug a cat that is trying to get away from you.
It’s especially important to monitor your cats’ behavior around children and guests and offer him safe spots to escape to so that he doesn’t feel agitated or cornered.
“Cat owners should speak up and nicely tell their guests if their cat does not like to be pursued. Tell them that pursuing the cat, especially if the cat is walking away, is considered threatening,” said Dr. Tynes. “If your cat or dog doesn’t like to interact with people, then put them in a safe area with all of his/her needs, such as a litter box, food, water and perch.”
Stress and Your Cat
Pursuing a cat that does not welcome the interaction is not only stressful and potentially dangerous for people but for cats, too.
“Cats can feel fear and anxiety like humans,” says Dr. Tynes.
If a cat is often in a state of stress, it can make them ill or even shorten their lifespans, says Hartstein.
“No animal wants to live in a constant state of stress,” he says. “It is detrimental to the quality of their lives and their life spans. It’s important to respect your cat’s preferences just as you respect the preferences in any other relationship.”