Biting and Scratching? Recognize the Trigger Signs

Tips for avoiding sharp claws and teeth.


Do you have a cat who will bite or scratch, seemingly out of nowhere? Rest assured it’s not out of nowhere. Our enchanting pets have their reasons. We just have to learn what those reasons are so that we can be prepared to avoid triggering an aroused or anxious cat into a harmful response. Cat bites and scratches can have serious consequences for loving owners. (See below.)

The reasons cats lash out

Here are the two main reasons cats use their teeth and claws on people.

Pain. Any illness or painful physical condition such as arthritis can increase a cat’s reactivity, just like it can for a person. Cats are less likely to be in a calm, trusting mood if they are in a lot of discomfort. Even the most mild-mannered house cat will be more like-ly to strike if someone touches a part of her body that’s in pain. She’s just trying to protect herself. Does she lash out when you lightly touch the same spot repeatedly? Take her to the veterinarian to see if she has a medical issue.

Fear. People tend to think that a fearful cat will always be cowering in a corner or under the bed. But fear can also result in aggression as a mode of self-protection. She’s telling you: “I’m scared. Keep away.” Aggression is often instinctual and not premeditated, so it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. She’s not trying to hurt you out of spite.

Sometimes the fear trigger is not a touch but instead “a loud noise or a frightening stimulus such as an unfamiliar cat outside the window,” says the Head of the Tufts Animal Be-havior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “Redirected aggression is one of the most common reasons cats bite or claw people. Strangers in the home can also be frightening to a cat and may make her become aggressive,” she adds.

Are you fluent in feline?

There are a number of signs that a cat is getting ready to let you know she doesn’t want your attention. Once you know them, you can back off to avoid getting hurt — and make for a happier cat.

  • Ears pinned.
  • Hard stare.
  • Freezing in place.
  • Twitching tail.
  • Hissing.
  • Snarling.

If you see any of these signs, don’t try to get closer; it is almost guaranteed you will not be able to get the cat to calm down. And “if you are moving from one room to another and a hissing, snarling cat blocks your way, give the cat an escape route by stepping aside to let her pass,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “The cat may feel trapped and threatened and, to defend herself, compelled to lash out.”

Dr. Borns-Weil also recommends paying attention to the kind of petting your cat does and doesn’t like. “Many cats do not appreciate petting below the neck or become uncomfortable with prolonged petting,” she points out. Whatever the trigger, avoid it. By the same token, she adds, if your cat is fearful of visitors, confine her to a separate room when you have people over. It will make her feel safe, not trapped.

Of course, make sure your cat gets play time and training time each day. “Cats are less stressed and less apt to be aggressive in an enriched environment,” the doctor advises.

If You Do Get Scratched or Bitten

The wounds carry a significant risk for infection.

Deep scratches from exceptionally sharp, curved nails can break flesh. If you are bitten or scratched deeply, wash the wound immediately. Then apply direct pressure with an absorbent dressing or bandage.

See a physician as soon as possible, too. You may need antibiotics. In some cases, a wound may need suturing, and a tetanus booster might be recommended as well.

Says Tufts veterinarian Stephanie Borns-Weil: “I always advise my clients or coworkers who have been bitten or severely scratched to take it seriously and immediately seek medical attention. I also recommend people quickly ascertain whether the cat who bit or scratched them


  1. Recently as we are stuck inside I placed a little bowl of nuts outside my patio doors. Then I called my kitty to watch for Mr. Squirrel, who she loves to watch climbing the trees. Well Mr. Squirrel came and Kitty was beside herself with excitement. She quivered all over. She touched her paw to the glass in the door and Mr. Squirrel raised up on his hind legs to look at her. He calmly ate and she excitedly watched. She would run to me and then run back to the window as if to say “See mom. Mr.Squirrel! Isn’t this exciting!” She never growled or hissed or did the hunting crouch. She showed no aggression. She seemed just so excited to have a new friend. Finally when the squirrel was finished his nuts and had left she turned to me and just grabbed me with releasing excitement and bit my hand. She didn’t hurt me but I had to grab her and hold her away from me. Next time I will be ready. I think long sleeves and gloves just in case. There was no aggression only more excitement than she could contain.

  2. My cat “Fiesty” is five years old. She rarely accepts petting. I have had her almost two years and been bitten ans clawed many times. Is it possible that she was miss-treated or punished be previous owners – such as hit with a rolled up paper?
    I adopted her from Dumb Friends League who informed us she had been place and brought back two previous times. When I question this “she wasn’t using the litter box, Was both reasons. I Have never had one such kiss step, She does not like to be held, never has jumped onto my lap, but she follows me around and is usually within my sight, if I can find her napping sites. She lets me pet her while she is eating and recently has actually purred , She is the only pet with me. A beautiful, active, curious, playful – in her decisions. No physical problems have been found by my vet at her lat physical.
    She is a very active , big -15 pounds, and generally run full blast from on room to the other. And I love her. Thanks for listening. I an a subscriber of Catnip and share issues with my neighbor.

  3. I have a four-month-old kitten that attacks me all the time. I do not play with him with my hands but he always raring to go. Does he do that because he IS a kitten and will he grow out of it? He’s got me several times. Thanks.

  4. While living in a very rural location we heard a small kitten’s cries from the woods. Finally managed to catch her in a Have-a Heart trap. She was emaciated and had suffered a head/eye injury we suspected was from being thrown from a passing car. Several vet visits later we had a little black kitty who has now been our companion for 12 years. In all that time she has not asked for lap time, doesn’t rub our legs, and will not tolerate being picked up. She loves my wife’s voice. She likes petting but becomes too stimulated if it goes longer than she likes. We have learned the signs and usually stop in time but once in awhile she still strikes back. Yet she seeks us out and asks me to brush her for brief periods. I sincerely believe mistreatment by her first humans and early separation from mom and sibs has formed her personality. We are well trained by now and value her company as, I believe, she does ours.

  5. If a cat bites, Wash it thoroughly with soap and water. Let it bleed freely for a moment or two before you bandage it. A cat bite is essentially an injection of bacteria. If it’s just a shallow surface wound, you’re likely ok, but watch for signs of infection. If it’s deep see a doctor right away. Years ago I had a really bad cat bite on my wrist. Despite immediately starting me on IV antibiotics, I still ended up in he hospital with cellulitis.


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