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My cat suddenly bit me! Was my cat giving me any warning signs that I could have looked for? What should I do when I see those warning signs next time?

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Remember to distinguish between grab, nip ("stop that") and bite ("dammit, stop thay NOW").

Simply grabbing your hand may not mean anything more than if you grabbed your sibling's hand; it can range from play to a mildly serious rebuke depending on contex. (I've known cats that liked to gently chew on fingertips as a kind of affectionate play-fighting, when they could find a human who understood that game, just as they might gently chew another cat's ear.)

Nip (putting a moderate amount of pressure behind it, and usually done more suddenly) is a protest. "Cut it out, I mean it this time." It isn't an attack, but it's a serious objection. It may mean the cat is overstimulated and wants time to recover. It may mean the cat just isn't in the mood for that kind of attention, or doesn't trust you enough. Remember that exposed belly doesn't actually mean "rub belly' unless the cat knows you very well -- it's more a statement of "I trust you won't take advantage of my vulnerable pose", and the cat may be justifiably annoyed if it thinks you're violating that trust.

If you were actually BITTEN, something is wrong. Either you did something the cat really felt threatened by, or the cat has other reasons for being unhappy (such as illness) and you were just one more thing than it could deal with.

You'll learn the difference, and how to read the cat's moods, over time if you pay attention... just as it will learn to read your moods. It's a first-contact situation, two alien life forms trying to figure each other out, and understanding takes time and will never be perfect. Practice makes better.

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  • This is a good answer for why cats might bite, but doesn't really answer how to tell when they're about to bite (at least from what I can tell).
    – Spidercat
    Feb 25 '15 at 19:48
  • That's because the warning signs differ from cat to cat and situation. Obviously if the cat puts its ears back, hisses or growls -- yes, cats can growl -- cowers or displays the bottle-brush tail configuration (fur fully up at tip of tail, less so at base) it's annoyed and/or frightened. But some will nip without much warning, and I don't know any way to explain that level of signalling except to mention likely situations and recommend letting the cat teach you the others.
    – keshlam
    Feb 25 '15 at 20:23
  • That explanation is good if you can move it into your answer.
    – Spidercat
    Feb 25 '15 at 20:36
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Some tell tale warning signs of sudden cat aggression are... suddenly stoping their purring or no longer looking relaxed. Excessive tail swinging. That look they get in their eye as they slowly move towards you going for the kill. (thats when you get bit the worst.)

Make sure you give her lots of fun toys to play with and lots of other places to scratch. This should distract her from scratching you instead of other things. cats need to scratch and that's a fact. They just don't need to scratch you. If she starts being aggressive to you or giving you that infamous "look" go to a different room and don't let her in. Stay there for about 5-10 seconds and she will very quickly realize that being aggressive is not OK. When playing, try not to offer your hand as prey or she will quickly be convinced that your hand is what she is playing with, and will play with your hand like she would a cat toy. Make sure you play with your cat often so that she can let off her energy on things other than you. Keep on playing.

-GoldNugget8

P.S.

I would recommend watching this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Si-yk1KxYX0

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Cats just tend to be buttholes. The best method I've found for dealing with a cat is to ask permission and wait for a response. Sometimes I ignore the response, but I do so at my own risk.

To give an example, when I was living at home we had a scrappy little tuxedo cat that frequently whipped up on the dogs and anything that came in the yard. My brother would always aggravate him. He'd grab his tail and hold it (not pulling on it, just holding), he'd wait till he'd just cleaned himself and then touch him there, and there was more than once where he'd jump in front of the cat when he was walking down the hall and say he couldn't go past without the password. More than once, we'd see him run backwards yelling with the cat dragging along and his claws hooked into his sock or ankle. He now goes out of his way to bite and scratch my brother, even when unprovoked. He would get off my bed and go in my brother's room to throw up.

I on the other hand always put an arm and hand down (I later found out that a vertical arm simulates a raised tail, which is a friendly greeting to a cat) and let him come to me. I'd then scratch the parts he liked and when he gave me any sign he was done, I'd quit. I also made my room off limits to my brother. He wasn't allowed to acknowledge the cat existed when he was in my room. As a consequence, when he and my brother were fighting, he'd run through the crack of my door and turn around to glare at my brother, daring him to come in. I had to pound him twice for ignoring the rules.

Basically, it's a process. If you look for clues from your cat as to what he wants and then abide by it, he'll start offering you those signs, the same as he'll meow to get food you're eating, or come running whenever he hears a can open. On the other hand if you don't listen to them, he'll stop showing them and just start attacking.

Every cat is different and you may develop your own signs. However, signs my cat gives me are plaintive meows, which are warnings, putting a paw on the hand I'm scratching him with is a more serious warning. Finally, he may pop my hand or nip me. However, it's more like a play bite as it doesn't break the skin. I don't really correct this unless he gets too enthusiastic. If he really bears down, I'll pop his butt or start clapping my hands to chase him off, but because I listen to him, I've only done that once or twice in his life.

You may not see any signs at first, but if you keep looking for them, keep asking for permission, and keep waiting for a response. They'll develop or you'll begin to recognize them. Good luck.

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Sometimes there honestly isn't that much or any warning. Like in the case you do something to the cat that causes it pain or discomfort, it could bite without any telltale signs. And this can be from something that you had no idea was tender. For instance, if your cat has arthritis you are unaware of, it can look perfectly fine, but touching it in the arthritic area could cause pain that makes it lash out at you without warning. Meanwhile, other cats are more gentle, or if it isn't very painful or discomforting, sometimes they won't necessarily go all out. They might suddenly put their mouth around you without actually biting down or use a paw to push your hand away. If you unexpectedly see any of this sort of behavior, then it may be advisable to take your animal to the vet, as your pet may have an illness or injury you weren't aware of.

Other times you will have warning, if you know what to look for. A common case where you do have warning is if you pet the cat too intensely, and it gets over stimulated (that is, it seems to enjoy it until it doesn't, despite you not changing how you're petting it) or it's generally irritated with what it perceives as being too rough handling. In this sort of case, the cat will often start to visibly tense up versus the normal relaxed posture that's a sign that it's enjoying being petted. If it's relaxed, it'll partially close or completely close its eyes as if it's going to sleep. A tense cat's eyes may be fully open, or be tensely squinting. Another sign is the ears. A relaxed cat's ears are fully erect, whereas a tense cat's ears are usually very slightly down from the fully erect position. Other possible signs are twitching of the skin on its back and lashing of the tail. The cat will give in general a more alert and tense sort of impression. If your cat gets easily over stimulated or dislikes the way you pet it, then you should tone down your petting. Long strokes all the way down the back, even gentle ones, still seem to be very intense for some cats. It's much more calming to stick to petting the head and neck. Most cats especially like petting under the chin or on the cheeks.

The last reason it might bite is because it's trying to play with you. Sometimes when petting, especially if you get a little more energetic or rough or petting it on the belly, the cat might interpret that as trying to initiate play. The signs it's becoming playful are similar to those of being overstimulated, except that with play, it will give an impression of sudden alertness. Its eyes will open wide, and it might start really obviously watching you in order to be ready to pounce. Or if might randomly run up to you and try to bite or wrestle when you're minding your own business. This is generally really obvious, as cats don't normally attack people out of nowhere, but they'll try to surprise you when they're playing.

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As others have noted, there is a difference between a nip and a bite. A nip is when they put their teeth on you but apply little or no pressure; they are trying to get your attention without actually hurting or injuring you. A bite is hard enough to break the skin and cause pain. Do note that kittens may need to be taught the difference, especially if there are no other cats in the home for them to play-fight with.

Some common warning signs of an impending bite are:

  • Purring stops
  • Swishing tail
  • Flattened ears
  • Dilated pupils
  • Staring with no blinking
  • Swatting/Pushing
  • Struggling (if held)
  • Nipping
  • Hissing
  • Growling

There may be other signs for a particular cat; they all have their own personality quirks, just like humans. Regardless, any of the signs on this list mean it's best to stop touching (or approaching) the cat.

Generally, if the cat knows and trusts you but just doesn't want to be touched at the moment, they will gently nip your hand or push it away, which is pretty self-explanatory. It you don't heed that warning, though, they may escalate depending on how annoyed they are (and their individual personality). If you do heed it, though, that will build/reinforce their trust in you.

Strangers usually can't get close enough that a nip or push makes sense; a cat that feels threatened will prefer to keep their distance by walking (or running) away. If cornered, they will warn with a hiss or growl and, if that doesn't work, go straight to attacking, usually with both teeth and claws.

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