It’s crucial to understand that when cats scratch or bite people, that’s their way of expressing certain emotions or needs. Before you can hope to train your cat to stop biting or scratching you*, you’ll need to understand where their aggression is coming from.
Why Cats Scratch and Bite
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. Plus, scratching is a way for cats to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands on all four of their paws (called “interdigital glands), which leave an odor that’s very noticeable to other cats, though thankfully not to humans.
Biting also serves a variety of purposes throughout your cat’s life. Cats may playfully nip humans and other cats during kittenhood, which helps them hone their hunting and self-defense 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 behavior is often accompanied by hissing, growling, or flattened ears. Cats may resort to these behaviors when they feel threatened or anxious, when they feel sick or ill, or as a warning to stave off potential threats and establish clear boundaries.
How to Prevent Scratching and Biting
It’s essential to create a safe and stimulating environment that minimizes stress and potential triggers for aggressive behavior. 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.
A safe environment should help prevent accidents and let your cat have some alone time. Make sure that:
Potential hazards are minimized, reducing the risk of accidents
There’s no access to toxic plants, chemicals, or small objects that can be eaten
Your cat has access to secure and private spaces
A stimulating environment should promote mental and physical engagement and alleviate boredom without undermining your cat’s natural instincts. This means keeping your cat occupied with toys and interactive play, which can redirect your cat’s energy away from scratching and biting. Provide them with:
Access to scratching posts, interactive toys, climbing structures, and puzzle feeders
Adequate playtime and interactive sessions with their humans
It’s also extremely important to minimize stress and maintain a calm environment. Cats are very sensitive creatures, and stressful living situations can lead to aggressive behavior. For instance, they’re more likely to bite or scratch in a noisy environment that prevents them from feeling at ease or in an environment where other pets or small children treat them roughly or continually invade their space.
Minimizing stress also means maintaining a consistent routine for your cat, providing them with hiding places or elevated perches where they can retreat when they feel overwhelmed, and ensuring that they have a peaceful area where they can rest and sleep without disturbance.
By creating a safe and enriched environment that minimizes stress and potential triggers for aggression, responsible cat owners can go a long way toward preventing or reducing scratching or biting.
Recognizing Aggression in Cats
Despite your best efforts to create a safe and stimulating home environment, your cat may nonetheless bite, scratch, hiss, growl, or lunge. Recognizing signs of agitation can help you avoid or de-escalate situations that might lead to biting or scratching.
And understanding the specific cause of your cat’s biting or scratching can help you deal with your cat’s aggression in the long term, whether by providing appropriate outlets for their energy, using positive reinforcement training techniques, or addressing an underlying illness or injury.
Signs of agitation might include:
A swishing tail
If you notice any of these behaviors, it’s best to give your cat some space.
Sometimes, aggression in cats can be a sign of an undiagnosed illness or injury. This is often the case in situations where a cat with no history of aggression suddenly begins scratching or biting. In these situations, you should also look out for other common signs of injury or illness, like excessive meowing.
If your cat is behaving aggressively, you should immediately take them in for a veterinary exam. Regular veterinary care is crucial for catching health issues early and addressing any medical causes of aggression.
Behavioral Training Techniques (and When to Seek Professional Help)
Training a cat to stop scratching and biting requires patience and consistency. (If you adopted your cat from a shelter, it’s possible they may have a history of abuse, which can make training more difficult.) It's important to remember that while progress might be slow, every small step counts.
Redirecting your cat's attention to a toy or a scratching post can help curb aggressive behavior over time. And using a consistent corrective word when your cat displays aggressive behavior can 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 behavior.
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.
If your cat's biting or scratching persists despite your best training efforts, it might be time to seek help from a licensed behavioral trainer. A cat behaviorist can provide valuable insight and help you develop a personalized training plan.
How Cat Insurance Can Help
Understanding cat behavior can help you build a stronger bond with your cat and ensure they’re health and happiness. In many cases, you’ll be able to prevent scratching and biting by simply providing your cat with appropriate outlets for their natural behaviors and by using positive reinforcement training techniques.
But if your cat’s aggression is due to an underlying health condition, cat insurance may ease the financial burden of treating an accident or illness. (And unlike some other pet health insurance companies, ManyPets covers the cost of sick exams.) We always aim to provide you with peace of mind, letting you focus on enjoying life’s many adventures.
*This article is written for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for advice from a licensed expert. If you have any real-life concerns or questions regarding feline aggression, please consult a licensed behavioral specialist, a veterinarian, or both.