Puppies and kittens experience the world through their mouths. Whatever fits goes in. And that may include your fingers and toes. Or your nose. Or any other part of your body that happens to be in nipping range.

Young pets don't mean any harm, of course, and their affectionate mouthings can't do real damage. But what's cute in young pets can be terrifying in older pets. Millions of people are bitten by dogs every year. And once a pet starts biting, he is likely to keep doing it unless you find ways to make him stop.

In dogs, biting is usually a display of dominance -- their way of defending their territory and their status in the family. If another pet approaches their food, for instance, dogs will sometimes bite to prove that they are top dogs, says Wayne Hunthausen, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Westwood, Kansas, who specializes in behavior problems. In addition, some dogs will bite when they are startled or frightened. This is particularly true of dogs that have had abusive owners in the past, he says.

Cats are less likely than dogs to launch serious attacks. In fact, many cat bites are accidental -- they were play-hunting, for example, and got a little carried away when your ankles came within reach. A cat may also bite when he wants to be left alone, such as during a petting, when he suddenly decides that he has had enough. Although cats are less likely than dogs to be seriously aggressive, even a minor cat bite can be dangerous because the wounds frequently get infected. It is essential to wash the wound with antibacterial soap and water and to check with your doctor to see if you need further treatment, which may include a tetanus shot.

Perhaps the most common cause of cat bites is what vets call redirected anger. When your cat is under stress after being chased by a dog, for example, he is likely to lash out at anything that comes close, including your ankle or hand.

Both dogs and cats may bite when they are in pain from a medical problem such as arthritis, adds Barbara Simpson, D.V.M., Ph.D., a veterinarian in private practice in Southern Pines, North Carolina, who specializes in animal behavior.

See Your Vet If...


  • Your pet plays aggressively or "mouths" your hand.
  • Your cat's tail is swishing back and forth.
  • Your dog's fur stands on end and his ears point forward.
  • Your pet has begun growling at or biting people.
  • He gets panicky in certain situations, such as during thunderstorms.
  • He has started pressing his head against walls.
  • Your pet is having accidents in the house.
  • He is overly possessive of food or toys.
  • You can't stop him from barking or meowing.
  • Your pet's voice has changed.
  • He gets obsessed with odd behaviors, like chasing his tail or biting his feet.
  • He urinates when people approach.
  • Your pet seems depressed or lethargic.
  • He is constantly biting, scratching, or licking himself.
  • He often stands with his legs wide apart or at an awkward angle.
  • His back arches even when he is not frightened.
  • He appears to be having seizures.
  • Your pet hesitates to take orders.
  • He growls during play.
  • He hisses for no reason.

Next Steps:

Back to Behavior Main Page
Back to the Symptom Solver Main Page

Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

Like this? Want more?
Connect with Us
Follow Our Pins

Yummy recipes, DIY projects, home decor, fashion and more curated by iVillage staffers.

Follow Our Tweets

The very dirty truth about fashion internships... DUN DUN @srslytheshow

On Instagram

Behind-the-scenes pics from iVillage.

Best of the Web