Scratching and biting are natural behaviors for cats. Most cats are content to direct their claws and teeth toward scratching posts, chew toys, and perhaps the occasional ill-fated mouse.
But what do you do if your cat start scratching or biting you and other humans?
If you want to train your cat out of sinking their teeth and claws in, first you’ll need to understand where their aggression is coming from.
Why do cats scratch and bite?
If your cat is scratching or biting people, it's likely that they're doing it as a way to express their emotions or needs.
Even the most well-behaved cats like to give their claws and teeth a workout. Scratching keeps their claws in top condition — it’s really a form of grooming. It also lets cats stretch their bodies and flex their feet and claws.
Scratching is also a way for cats to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands on all four paws (called 'interdigital glands'), which leave an odour that’s very noticeable to other cats – though thankfully not to humans.
Biting also serves a variety of purposes throughout your cat’s life. As kittens they may playfully nip humans and other cats. This helps them hone their hunting and self-defence skills.
It's important to differentiate between affectionate nipping — which is usually gentle and may be accompanied by purring or other signs of comfort and affection — and aggressive biting.
When your cat is biting or scratching aggressively, that’s a different form of communication altogether. This behaviour is often accompanied by hissing, growling, or flattened ears.
There are two main reasons why your cat might bite or scratch with aggression:
They feel threatened, or anxious. They may be staving off a perceived threat or trying to establish boundaries.
They feel sick or ill, or they have an injury that's causing them pain.
How to prevent scratching and biting
Now you know the reasons that your cat might be acting up, you can try to fix the problem.
The first step is to reduce fear and anxiety. By creating a safe and stimulating environment, you'll minimises stress and remove potential triggers for aggressive behaviour.
If you do this from the very moment you adopt your cat, you may prevent aggressive scratching and biting before it ever starts. And if your cat has already begun biting or scratching, improving their environment might help them stop.
Some steps you could take to help your cat relax are:
Give your cat access to secure and private spaces. Dens and dark hidey holes will make them feel safe. Some cats like to retreat to elevated perches like shelves or cat trees.
Reduce the risk of accidents by removing hazards like objects that could topple onto them from their immediate environment.
Make sure they don't have access to toxic plants, chemicals, or small objects that can be eaten.
Keep your cat occupied with toys and interactive play to redirects their energy away from scratching and biting. Scratching posts, interactive toys, climbing structures, and puzzle feeders are all good options.
Give them adequate playtime and interactive sessions with you and other humans.
Giving your cat a stimulating environment relieves boredom by letting them exercise their mind and body and carry out their natural instincts.
It’s also extremely important to keep your cat's stress levels as low as possible with a calm environment. Cats are very sensitive creatures, and stressful living situations can lead to aggressive behaviour.
For example, they’re more likely to bite or scratch in a noisy environment, or in a home where other pets or small children treat them roughly or continually invade their space. Make sure your cats have quiet, private areas they can retreat to whenever they need.
By creating a safe, enriched and stress-free environment you are removing a lot of triggers for aggression, which can prevent or reduce the scratching or biting.
Could pain be making your cat bite?
Aggression in cats can sometimes be a sign of an undiagnosed illness or injury. This is often the case if your cat suddenly begins scratching or biting when they have no history of aggression.
You've made sure your cat's environment is stress-free but they're still biting or scratching you need to consider whether pain could be causing their behaviour problems.
If you suspect that pain is making your cat act out of character, look out for other common signs of injury or illness, like excessive meowing.
If your cat is behaving aggressively, your vet should be your first port of call. They can check your cat over and help you address any medical causes for their scratching and biting.
Behavioural training techniques
You'll need patience and consistency to train your cat to stop scratching and biting.
If they're a rescue cat, they may even have a history of abuse or cruelty, which can make training more difficult.
Progress might be slow, but just try to remember that every small step counts.
Recognising aggression in cats
If you can recognise signs of agitation early on, you might be able to calm the situation and prevent a scratch or bite.
Despite your best efforts to create a safe and stimulating home environment, your cat might still bite, scratch, hiss, growl, or lunge.
Signs of agitation include:
A swishing tail
If you notice any of these, give your cat some space.
Redirecting cat aggression
By consistently redirecting your cat's attention to a toy or a scratching post, you can help curb aggressive behaviour over time. Use a consistent corrective word when your cat displays aggressive behaviour to help them understand that their actions aren’t appropriate.
And remember, active play is also crucial for keeping your cat's energy levels in check and preventing aggressive behaviour.
Don't punish your cat's biting
Just make sure you never punish or yell. A punitive or intimidating approach to training can actually worsen your feline friend’s stress and increase their aggression.
Seek professional help
If your cat's biting or scratching persists despite your best training efforts, it might be time to seek help from a cat behaviourist.
A cat behaviourist can provide valuable insight and help you develop a personalised training plan, but it's important to choose someone reputable.
Animal behaviourists are not regulated in the UK, so you should always use a professional that your vet has recommended or referred you to.
The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) has a directory of behaviour practitioners that you can search by area and species.
Cat behavioural practitioners are in much shorter supply than dog behaviourists, but they are out there.
How cat insurance can help
Cat insurance can help cover the cost of underlying health conditions, like an accident or illness, that are causing your cat's scratching and biting.
Some pet insurance policies also cover behavioural treatment. At ManyPets, our policies cover behavioural treatment up to your vet fee limit as long as you're referred to the behaviourist by your vet.