How to Stop Your Cat from Biting and Scratching

How to Stop Your Cat from Biting and Scratching

Many cat owners complain about the same problem with their pets —they like to bite or scratch. These cat owners have arms and hands that tell the tales of an aggressive cat, as well. So what can you do if your own cat is a biter or a scratcher?

Believe it or not, there are solutions.

For starters, the simplest way to limit your cat's biting and/or scratching is to help her expend her aggressive energy in different, healthier ways, while also teaching her that biting and scratching are not appropriate with humans and other cats. To do so you’ll need to first identify why your cat is acting out. The most common reasons for such behaviors include:

Hierarchy: Cats in multi-cat homes usually set up hierarchy dominance. The easiest way to tell if this has already happened is through how your cats position themselves vertically — dominant cats will seek out the highest possible spot to sit. “Cats compete for priority access to resources and territory, but the vast majority of this competition is non-aggressive,” says Katherine Miller, Ph.D., C.A.A.B., C.P.D.T. and animal behaviorist with the ASPCA. “Posturing, vocalizing and other threats are usually sufficient for one cat to back off. However, if cats are confined in a household where one cat cannot back off far enough out of the territory or away from the coveted resource, or if the resource is valuable enough (like a female in heat), aggression may ensue.” If aggression is the problem, fix it by obeying the 'laws' your pets have set forth for themselves, and treat your cats accordingly. For example, make sure to feed, pet or talk to the dominant cat first. Also try to favor the dominant cat slightly if you can. This may seem unfair, but this is the way it works best in the cat world, and it’s what your cats have chosen. If you try to go against this system, your dominant cat may not be happy, and will most likely take it out on both you and the other cats through aggressive behavior.

Territorialism: As explained above, cats are territorial creatures by nature. This stems from their ancestors who had to protect their territory in order to survive. Even though your house cat doesn't have to behave territorially to survive, he will still exhibit these behaviors because it's just in his nature. Follow the same rules as mentioned above, and also make sure your cats have their own things. Each cat in a multi-cat house should have his own toys, bed, areas to sleep and rest in, etc. If a cat feels he doesn't have proper territory — or if he feels that his territory is being encroached upon — aggressive behaviors may ensue.

Maternal/Paternal Instincts: Most animals are extremely protective of their young, and cats are no different. “Cats’ social groupings are matrilineal — meaning that related females tend to live together and may even help care for each others’ kittens,” says Dr. Miller. “Outsiders to this grouping, and even the father, may be driven away in an effort to protect the kittens.” If your cat has recently had kittens, keep in mind that she may be very aggressive towards even familiar cats and people, especially when her kittens are nearby. While there’s not much that can be done about a mother attempting to protect her kittens, keep in mind that she may be less maternally aggressive when she leaves her nest for food or a break from the babies, and as the kittens get older any aggression should decrease as well.

Heat: Most female cats are actually very lovey-dovey when they’re in heat, says Dr. Miller, but a queen who has been bred by a male cat, however, may scream or act aggressively towards him immediately after mating. For this and many other reasons, you should have your cat spayed or neutered when he or she is around six months of age.

Boredom: While it might be a commonly held belief that cats are self-sufficient and don't need us humans for anything but food, water and shelter, this is actually quite incorrect. Our pets also look to us for stimulation, companionship and exercise — especially when they are very young. “Young, active cats often have energy to burn, and if they don’t get enough interactive playtime with ‘fishing rod’ type toys that make them run, jump and pounce, they may find other, inappropriate things to pounce on, such as human arms or legs,” says Dr. Miller. In other words, what may feel to you like an ambush when you walk into the room or when you’re ignoring your cat could very well just be his attempt to get in some play time. In the wild you will see cats 'playing' with other cats all the time. This is actually a very important part of their day as it helps to teach them to fight and attack prey, stimulate intellectual growth, learn proper social skills and coordination and timing. To help avoid unnecessary roughness that comes from a bored cat, try to spend at least two hours a day playing with your pet. The more you stimulate your cat's mind and help him learn to explore and play, the happier and more self-sufficient your cat will be.

Illness: A cat who is not feeling well or is in pain may withdraw and be very quiet, or, alternatively, may become very irritable. “A sudden change in a cat’s behavior is often an indicator that it’s time to go to the vet for a check up,” said Dr. Miller.

Genetic predisposition: Just like humans, cats have individual personalities for which they are genetically predisposed. In other words, some cats are aggressive by nature. However, genes and experience always work together, says Dr. Miller . “What this means is that even a cat with a genetic predisposition for irritability can learn, though consistent positive reinforcement, to display more acceptable behaviors instead,” she said. “For example, if a cat tends to swat when petted along its back, systematic rewards for tolerance of very short bouts of petting can change the behavior.”

Improper Socialization: If your cat is the type who bites when you come near, hates to be held or touched and lashes out at every chance, you may have an ill-socialized or feral cat on your hands. “Kittens undergo a very important period during their development from the ages of two to seven weeks,” says Dr. Miller. “During this time they must be gently handled and have regular, positive interactions with people in order to fully accept humans as part of their normal social environment.” Kittens who miss out on that regular, close contact with people may be wary, fearful or defensively aggressive when approached or handled by people later in life. Such a cat will need to be socialized before becoming an acceptable pet. Domesticated cats can also revert to wild behaviors if they are abandoned, mistreated or ignored. Cats who were not properly socialized from an early age can become good pets – it will just be a time consuming effort that will require a lot patience as you go along.

Fear or redirected aggression: Many owners have been victim to this type of aggression, which occurs when a cat is already in an overstimulated/scared state and someone intervenes. For example, your cat may be attempting to back away, she may look ready to dart off or she may be hissing or growling in warning, says Dr. Miller. The best thing to do when your cat is in this mode is to not get involved (unless of course you feel your cat is in danger and you need to protect her). On the other hand, whether defensively or offensively aggressive, a cat may occasionally redirect its aggression onto an unintended target nearby. “For example, if a cat is having an aggressive encounter with an intruder cat in its territory and its owner intervenes, the cat may strike at or bite the person, inflicting collateral damage,” says Dr. Miller.

Human Error (AKA Incorrect Reading of Cat's Signals): Cats, just like humans, have different moods and they communicate these moods to us through multiple ways. If your cat doesn't want to be played with or bothered, in one way or another he will let you know. One frequently misread message is a cat who rolls onto its back. “A cat who does not want to be interacted with may roll onto its back, freeing its back legs to inflict some serious damage if it’s approached,” said Dr. Miller. “The act of rolling over is sometimes mistaken by a person for a sign that the cat wants a belly rub, and the result can be a painful raking of the hand or arm with the back claws.” The best thing to do to minimize such situations is to better communicate with your cat and learn to read what he is saying. If you do that you will know when your cat wants love and attention … and when he just wants to be left alone.

If you feel that your cat is overly aggressive and using the simple tips above does not help, you may want to contact your vet or behaviorist for additional advice.

Image courtesy of Gleb Semenjuk/Shutterstock