In our regular “Ask the Expert” column in, we recently got a question from a reader:

“My 8-year-old indoor cat is declawed (front feet only). She has developed a bad habit of biting me to express her displeasure. She’s a tiny thing (only a little over 6 pounds) and I don’t want to slap her to discipline her (it was suggested, but I’m bigger and that doesn’t seem fair). I’m wondering what the best method might be to discourage this behavior. She does it so quickly that I’m usually sitting there bleeding and she’s well out of reach in an instant. Any ideas?”

Cat who bites too muchThere are 4 common reasons a cat may bite a family member.

Redirected aggression:
It could be your cat is really reacting to something else—like another cat at the sliding door, a loud noise, a dog too close—and your cat bites the next available close hand. One solution here is to recognize calm behavior, like self-grooming or eating. Contrast that with the stiff posture, fluffed back and tail and wide open stare of the fearful or aroused cat. Do not handle the stiff aroused cat until she shows relaxed behavior like head bunting, or grooming.

Cat is done with petting:
Normal cat behavior is for two cats to wrestle and tussle and groom each other until one or both have had enough. There will then be a slight pause, and one or both cats will flatten ears, and give a sharp quick bite and run away to end the play session. This may be what the 8-year-old indoor cat is doing. The key here is to limit lap sitting and petting. Stop petting before the cat shows signs of being done. You should shoo your cat off your lap, or at least takes your hands away if she has stopped purring, ears flatten, or if her eyes get a glazed stare. I call this the “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” point for the cat. If this cat tends to bite as you stand up or shoo cat off your lap, she should only sit on laps protected by a blanket, so you can remove her from your lap by lifting up the blanket.

Cat is trying to get away:
Fearful cats, cats being medicated, and animals in pain will not bite if you just get out of the way. Most cat bites to humans in a Veterinary Hospital are in this category. At home, an animal in pain or a fearful animal should be left alone. If it is necessary to pick up the cat, use a thick towel or blanket to make a “cat burrito.”

Play aggression:
It is normal for any cat to chase and attack moving objects. The best reason to get two kittens at one time is to allow them to play attack each other and not pounce on family members. Indoor cats should be played with and encouraged to bat, bite and kick at safe, lightweight toys. Some of the best toys are some variety of fishing pole or dancing toys. The string or cord should be strong enough to not have cat eat the string.

Cats seem to particularly like toys where the dancing mouse can be “killed” and carried away (the soft toy can be ripped off a reusable Velcro or snap attachment.) Avoid games that encourage the cat to pounce on a person’s hands or feet.  I avoid play attacks to toes under blankets by having a laser pointer or throw toy to engage in play.

The cat who bites too much:
Some cats, especially kittens hand-reared as single kittens, (but also some cats with a more normal 5-8 weeks of nursing before adoption) seem to be biting too often and don’t fit into the four neat categories listed above. It is possible cats with claws might lash out with a paw in a situation where a declawed cat will bite, and both can injure the owner.

Modifying bad behavior requires careful timing of a mild safe correction, like a loud noise, squirt with a water pistol, or just moving away from the cat. Swatting at or hitting a cat is not effective. The cat also needs to be encouraged to exercise and play attack an approved prey object. You should avoid repeating situations where the cat has previously showed biting behavior. For some cats it is necessary to limit lap time. I encourage an office visit to evaluate the cat if you think there is unusual biting behavior. Some aggression situations may also be helped by having animal behaviorist visiting the home.

—Dr. Jess Franklin

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Ann Arbor Animal Hospital is a locally-owned animal hospital operating for over 90 years in Ann Arbor, MI.