August 2019


Aggression is a serious behavioral issue in cats. It can result in severe injury to humans, so any cat bite to a person needs to be addressed. Aggressive behavior can be seen in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender, and can stem from many different motivations. The most common reasons for bites to humans include:

  • Fear/defense
  • Pain/discomfort
  • Petting-induced
  • Play
  • Territorial
  • Redirected

Bites to people may be directed at familiar people or strangers. Bites to strangers usually happen when your cat is uncomfortable around strangers, or certain strangers (such as men or kids), even if the stranger is a kind, gentle person; this is irrelevant to a frightened cat. When cats bite people they know, the top three reasons are fear, play, and petting-induced aggression. A less frequent but common explanation is handling issues (discomfort, pain, or frustration). Many cats are naturally reluctant to have their bodies touched or manipulated. Status aggression might happen between cats but is highly unlikely to be the reason for biting people.

Regardless of the cause of aggression, consult with a professional to learn how best to manage the problem and prevent it from happening. As a first step, avoid doing whatever it was that resulted in someone getting bitten. For example, if you were bitten when petting your cat on their belly, don't pet them on their belly! If you can't avoid doing whatever triggered the aggression, keep your cat separated from the target of their aggression until your consult.

If a cat bite breaks the skin, it often causes small punctures and seems to heal or seal over quickly; however, the bite sometimes causes bacteria to enter the skin and can lead to serious infections. Deep puncture wounds can penetrate joints. Children, the elderly, ill, and immunosuppressed individuals are particularly at risk and should always receive immediate medical attention. However, with any cat bite that breaks the skin, the injured person should see a doctor in order to receive proper evaluation and treatment. Sometimes antibiotics are needed. For bites that breaks skin, your cat must be observed for 10 days to rule out rabies as a cause. For this reason, all cats should receive regular rabies vaccines, even if they are indoor-only cats.

While aggression can be very serious, it's also worthwhile to note that cats don't speak our language. Sometimes aggression is the only way they can tell us that they are uncomfortable with someone or something. By learning to understand what your cat is communicating to you and how to respond appropriately, we can prevent aggression and preserve a special relationship!

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.