—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Unprovoked cat bites are scary and can be dangerous, but knowing the reasons behind why they might happen is a great way to stay safe.
Before we look at each, we want to remind you to be careful and take all cat bites seriously. Cat bites often get infected and require oral or IV antibiotics, and sometimes even surgery.
Symptoms of an infection include swelling, redness, pain, and skin that’s hot to the touch.
If you suffer a cat bite (that breaks the skin), please seek medical attention because the sooner you get help, the faster you will heal.
Reason #1 Redirected Aggression
Redirected aggression is when a cat takes their aggression out on someone other than the cause of their frustration.
The complicated piece of it is that it can happen long after the actual incident, which can make it difficult to determine their trigger. One of the most common triggers is cats they see outside because they can’t physically reach them. A cat can turn on any other animals or humans in the home.
If your cat is triggered by anything outdoors, try to block their access so they can’t see what upsets them.
Redirected aggression can also occur because one cat is triggered by another in a multi-cat household. Your best bet in this scenario is to separate the cats and do a slow reintroduction.
Reason #2 Overstimulation
Overstimulation in cats isn’t fully understood, but we know it’s a real thing. It occurs during play usually with humans or other cats, and sometimes with objects. It also occurs during affection. There are a number of possible reasons for it.
During play, a cat is often doing exactly what they would do if they were hunting. They stalk, pounce, catch and kill prey, and similar behaviors are seen during playtime.
Since hunting leaves the cat with a big reward or a lot of frustration (when the prey gets away), it’s possible the brain goes into overdrive, making the cat super excited (like we are when something cool or annoying happens).
Since play is similar, the same thing could be happening. Once you notice your cat might be getting overstimulated, it’s best to distract them by throwing a toy or turning on an automatic toy and walking away.
For cats that get overstimulated playing with other cats, you can use a blanket or towel to break up any fights. Never try to break up a fight with your hands.
Petting presents other possibilities for overstimulation. Typically a cat gets overstimulated when they’re pet head to tail over and over again. This could also cause the brain to get excited from the stimulation, and then their energy is too high and results in a nip or bite.
Another possibility is they’re giving us a small cue that they want us to stop, and we don’t notice it, and it ends in a bite.
Try to pet your cat in short stints, stick to the head, and only pet from head to tail a few times and stop.
Reason #3 Play
Biting is often part of playtime. Cats will bite toy mice, streamers, kicker toys, and fluffy balls, the same way they would bite prey.
When a cat is playing, it’s best to keep your limbs away from them and leave a distance so they bite their toys and not you.
Kittens are famous for wrestling hands and nibbling them. It’s cute when they’re small, but a problem when they're big, which is why it’s recommended not to play with them using your hands.
Reason #4 Scared or Startled
When a cat is scared or startled, they might bite to defend themselves or make what’s scaring them go away.
Most cats want to avoid confrontation, so warning swats and bites are used. If they are startled, it’s just like us—they might react excessively and bite.
The best thing to do is avoid a cat when they are scared or right after they’re startled to protect yourself. This will give them time to assess the situation and hopefully relax.
Reason #5 Attention
One thing that gets our attention is when cats do something they shouldn’t. If you aren’t careful, this could become a habit.
Sometimes a cat will rub against you for attention. You don’t respond. Then they bat at you. You don’t respond. It’s not hard to imagine that some cats nip or bite because nothing else worked.
To prevent your cat from biting, make sure you’re playing with them every day and giving them plenty of attention. For cats that want attention but are easily overstimulated, just pet two to three times and stop.
Reason #6 Pain
When a cat has a sudden change in personality, pain is one of the most likely culprits. A super sweet cat in pain can turn on a dime if they’re in pain.
I always say they are masters of disguise because they need to hide any weakness in the wild. Although it’s difficult to tell if a cat’s in pain, your observation skills may pick up on something that’s out of the norm.
Watch how your cat walks—if they are less active or have a different gait, they might be in pain.
Look for changes in bathroom and eating habits, which could indicate a digestive issue or even dental disease. And monitor how they act during petting:
Do they seem fine then react when you’re near a certain spot on their body? Are they an older cat? It’s possible they have joint pain.
Even if you don’t notice anything but your cat seems to lash out, you’ll want to talk to your vet and voice your concerns. They’ll help you figure out what’s going on and help you treat the issue, or manage it if it’s something chronic and incurable (like arthritis).
Reason #7 Lacks Proper Human Social Skills
Kittens have certain periods of critical development, and one of them is regarding socialization. Early socialization is around 3-7 weeks, and late socialization is until 16 weeks.
In addition to interacting with littermates and moms, this is the time when kittens should be exposed to people.
Kittens taken from their mother and/or littermates may not properly be socialized. Sometimes they grow up lacking necessary boundaries with other cats, especially if they were only around humans as a kitten. Likewise, kittens without early human interaction may be fearful of humans, or treat humans like their feline counterparts.
While it’s okay for cats to jump on each other and wrestle, doing the same thing to your leg could end up landing you in the ER.
If a cat is an adult, it will be harder to socialize them with humans, but it can be done in some cases. It’s important you set up boundaries and have playtime with your cat that involves maintaining space. Wand toys and automatic toys are great tools for this.
Clicker training and food puzzles can also be beneficial, because it keeps your cat’s brain focused on productive things, actively funneling their energy into productive tasks.
Reason #8 Neurological Issue
The brain is a complicated thing. Seizures and epilepsy can cause outbursts of aggression and rage, and they are diagnosed after bloodwork, X-rays, a CT, and an MRI.
Treatment depends on each individual case, but some cats do really well as long as they are on medication for their seizures. Other times, the seizures can’t be controlled even with medication, and the quality of life lessens. You’ll want to work closely with a neurologist to help your kitty.
Another possibility is a brain tumor (which can also cause seizures). A CT scan and an MRI are used to diagnose it. Surgery is usually recommended, but it really depends on the exact location. Other options for treatment include chemotherapy and radiation.
Outside of these medical issues, sometimes cat brains don’t develop the correct way due to a variety of reasons, including neglect and abuse, genetics, diseases that affect the limbic system, improper nutrition as a kitten, and even illness their mom had when they were in utero.
The parts of the brain that control aggression can get turned on much more easily when things don’t develop properly. It’s estimated the brain matures at 3.5 years, but even things that happen during crucial stages of development when a cat is a kitten can impact them long term.
These cats often react abnormally to stimuli. If you think this could be the reason for your cat’s issues, reach out to a cat behaviorist. Remember, it isn’t personal—your cat’s just doing what its brain is telling it to do.
Now that you know why your cat might bite if unprovoked, you can take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe. Again, seek medical attention for any cat bite, and always keep your vet looped in regarding changes in behavior as soon as you notice them.