It's a good thing she tested negative for rabies.
January 3, 2012 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I asked before about my cat's bitey tendencies. A month of strict training hasn't resulted in any adjustment. Maybe it's me?

My cat bites. She bites me when I wake up in the morning. She bites me when I'm petting her. She bites sometimes when I pick her up to keep her away from an open door. Occasionally, I'll be sitting next to her on the couch, not touching her, and she'll suddenly start biting me.

She does not do this to The Boyfriend, who lives with us. She does not bite him at all. Okay, I'll admit she's nibbled him once or twice. But mostly the two of them are on very good terms.

I'm wondering if I'm not reading her cues correctly. For example, when she's lying on her back and seems very relaxed, I'll go in for some tummy rubbing (only after she's sniffed my hand and given me a green light), and then comes the biting. Not always. Just ... sometimes. Seemingly at random.

Every time she's nipped me since I asked my original question, I have picked her up off the couch (or wherever) and condemned her to the floor. I have said, "OWW!" and walked away. Once, she started getting all bitey on the couch, and then she kept biting as I tried to evict her, but evict her I did.

I've come to the conclusion that maybe I'm misunderstanding her. Sometimes I think she's saying, "Hey, I'm lying on my back and want to be cuddled," or, "I'm going to sit next to you now so you'll pet me." And then she bites, so I think, "No, obviously she really didn't want to be petted."

To be clear, when this happens her ears are not back, her tail is not flicking, and the only sign she is about to bite is when she opens her disturbingly large mouth to attempt to take a chunk out of me.

She is otherwise very well-behaved. She has not bitten any house guests. She has not destroyed anything (other than a few books, which she used to make a nest, but one can hardly blame her for that). She doesn't pee or poop outside the box. She's even been trained -- mostly -- to stay away from the apartment door when it's open.

I do not like the idea of using a spray bottle, mainly because I'd have to keep one ON me at all times, since the biting is always out of the blue. By the time I run to grab a spray bottle, the biting is over and I'm not sure she'd connect the two events. Same goes for the can/jar of coins.

Instead of looking for more ways to train her, I'm now looking for ways to educate myself about What Cats Don't Like. Are there more cat-cues I should be looking for? Like, is it common knowledge that you don't pet a cat who is lying on her back? Is tail-swishing during petting always bad, or can it be a sign of happiness? How do you tell the difference between happy tail-swishing and annoyed tail-flicking?

Do you have any cat-to-human translation tools you use? Books, articles, videos, and anecdata are all welcome.
posted by brina to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My beloved calico and her mom (a ragdoll, ironically), were two of the greatest cats in the history of the universe but they came from a very inbred lineage that made my calico pretty damn feral and her mom just perpetually on edge all the damn time. For the calico she used to bite at random and her mom was so stressed out that she'd swat and bite me HARD if I even walked by her. Shoot, if either one of them was sleeping on my bed with me and I moved slightly in the middle of the night, they'd get so offended that they'd come right over and bite my ankles or even gnaw on my head to express their displeasure. Cats are flipping WEIRD, man.

What worked for me was to a) allow both cats to come to me for petting rather than vice versa and b) stop petting very quickly so as to encourage the kitties to develop an understanding that I respected their personal space. When that didn't work, I'd hiss loudly at them if they bit me, and/or swat them on their tushies. If they came to me on their own, I'd take care to talk to them very sweetly and softly, even if I wasn't touching them. It took many, many years, but eventually both cats chilled the hell out and even became affectionate lap kitties before they passed. It just takes a lot of patience.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:24 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Our Megan used to get all bitey with me. Thankfully, she never bites hard. But with her, the line between 'I wanna cuddle' and 'arg, get off me!' is an extremely fine one, and can be crossed in a split second.

I suspect that Megan has sensitive skin, so while she wants cuddles and loving from her people, petting specifically is an irritant. She will gladly sit on us, mooch up next to us in bed, park her backside on the keyboard while we're typing. But pettins, erm, not so much.

The only reliable indicator of "pet me now, human" is the forehead bump. While she'll roll over on her back of show her tummy, petting her while she's like that will always get her more annoyed than anything.

If she does get all bitey, I give her a light tap to the forehead, while saying "no!" sternly. Hubby tells me this is cat for "cut that out!". Megan is smart enough to have gotten the picture, and will now mowl a warning at me, but will not bite.
posted by LN at 1:26 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Cats: continue to be crazy.

I will say that I have had only one or two out of dozens of full-grown cats that liked belly rubs. They all like to lie on their backs, but it does not mean they want to be touched on their stomachs. Even when my cat is purring and drooling and I can pet her very roughly and muss her fur all up, she will still immediately bite if I touch her stomach. Same with feet and legs; touching those is usually unwelcome. Also I have never seen a cat tail-swish out of pleasure; only annoyance. (Maybe some tail-flicking if you just pet the cat's back and tail, and it is resettling its fur? That's all I can think.)

If you pay attention to her cues (try watching her with other people too, to see if you notice any difference), I bet you'll see some patterns. I never realized how much cat behavior I was unconsciously responding to until I watched people with less cat behavior understanding try and interact with my cats. But yeah, it doesn't sound like she needs more training necessarily, just a little more time getting used to each other. It's a learning process!

Also she is gorgeous, I remembered once I looked at your earlier post. What a street cat!
posted by little cow make small moo at 1:27 PM on January 3, 2012

Response by poster: I almost forgot that photos are a pre-req! Here's a recent one.
posted by brina at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oops, I answered your old question. The biting sounds like it's painful now? or is it still just her putting her teeth on you?

Two things you asked about I can answer before I c/p my other one:
Stop petting the cat if it's tail starts to twitch. It'll bite soon. That's how it tells you.

Cats fight for real by attacking each others stomachs. Dogs attack the neck. So you need to reaaaaaally be on good terms for the cat to let you pet her belly. And still my girl cat will sometimes bite me eventually to say stop.


Knowing why your cat is doing this might help soooo... The cat is marking you, which is a sign of affection, it's also why cats rub their faces and the sides of themselves against things they like. You'll probably notice the cat rubbing the side of its mouth against things like the bottom corner of your TV or tables.

It's not a health issue. If you don't like the behavior, put the cat down and ignore it when it bites you like that, but personally I find it affectionate. This is much different than hard biting which is never acceptable.

You can still train the cat to only 'love bite' acceptable areas by just putting her down/going away if she bites a part of you that you don't like. Also, know that if you pet the cat too long it might bite you. Watch the tail, as soon as it starts twitching, stop petting the cat.

One last thing, as you noted, she only does it to you (rarely your BF) and certainly wouldn't do it to any random stranger. So don't think you have to break the behavior because she might flip out on someone else. That won't happen in this case.

But retrain if you want. I understand how it can be weird or uncomfortable. I'm glad your kitten likes you!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:25 PM on January 3 [+] [!]
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:31 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: The answer is complicated. First, your cat probably bites you for more than one reason. Our elderly female cat hates having her tummy touched at all and will "fight" us if we do it, even in the midst of petting. Also, cats sometimes bite in play. They can play rough. And, my male cat occasionally bites me as a sign of deep affection. Also, there is fear biting. So, lots of things could be going on.

I'd suggest first reading this.

Then, take a hard look at Karen Pryor's clicker training site. Cats can indeed be trained, but they are very oriented toward rewards. Punishment-based training is pretty much doomed. Read some of this stuff. Consider a book by Pryor. Meanwhile, I'd do three things: 1) train with postive reinforcement for any affectionate, nonbiting behavior of kitty toward you. (Tiny little kitty treats, awarded after a consistent marker phrase like "sweet kitty!" makes for some powerful reinforcement.) 2) If the kitty bites, get up and walk away, or gently put her on the floor and ignore her. That's as negative as you should ever get. 3) Consider training her to a signal to bite on command -- then never give that signal again. This is a very effective form of positive reinforcement training.
posted by bearwife at 1:32 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd avoid tummy, tail, back, even back of head right now. Basically aviod anything the cat can't see, it makes her think you're up to something. I found with my bitey cat that sticking to slow, calm strokes along the side of his face kept him pretty mellow (mimicing that marking behavior OnTheLastCastle mentioned). Also, keep a close eye on her and stop touching as soon as she pulls away at all or even looks at you sharply. Tail-swishing is definitely a warning sign. And keep your movements slow, even when pulling back from her - which I know is hard since you're expecting to be attacked at any moment. I find that quick movements seem to set off an attack reflex.

So, basically the same rules apply with human standoffs - move slow and keep your hands where she can see 'em!
posted by platinum at 1:39 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: My cat does this as a sign of affection. When she's totally blissed out, she reverts to suckling. I've given up training, and instead insist that she only nibble my finger. My fingers are callused, and she does it in a way to avoid using her canines. If I take away my finger, she seems to think it's a sign that cuddling is over.

If she's not hurting you, and she doesn't have any aggressive markers (like flattened ears, twitchy tail), I'd take it in that vein. You don't have to be a sucker and put up with it like I do. But you shouldn't immediately take it as an aggressive act.
posted by politikitty at 1:44 PM on January 3, 2012

I've found that most cats will start biting when tummies are rubbed. They also mark items with the sides of their mouths, often with teeth exposed, sort of feels like a bite, but that's not what it is...

On preview, what OTLC said above....

My male cat will also, at times, jump on his sister and bit her neck... I suspect this is a form of foreplay of some sort...

And, as noted above, and from the beginning of time, cats are weird.
posted by tomswift at 1:44 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: I don't have a solution for you (mine did it too) but supposedly, she loves you
posted by stormpooper at 2:13 PM on January 3, 2012

Response by poster: stormpooper, now I totally have to train her to lick instead of bite so she'll give me kitty kisses all the time, not just when she's licking herself already.
posted by brina at 3:34 PM on January 3, 2012

We humans can, on occasion, be slow to pick up on what our cat is trying to communicate. It's perfectly obvious to her, just not to us. So try to be more understanding and more open to learning from her. Fortunately, cats are patient teachers.
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:07 PM on January 3, 2012

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