By Naomi & Karina Paape
Dear Fellow Felines: I hope you all had a terrific Valentine’s Day. I sure did. I was besieged with cards, treats, cat grass, treats, toys, treats, a fancy cat bed, treats, a designer cat tree, treats, and more treats. Mixed in with the hundreds of love letters, however, I ran across a few disturbing emails (yes, cats have email accounts; we just choose not to “reply”).
It sounds to me like some of you have been biting your staff, the very hands that feed you, and without provocation. I’m not talking love bites here. I’m talking plunging your razor-sharp fangs into human flesh, thereby unleashing mega doses of drop-to-the-floor pain, leaving your staff doubled over in surrender. How do you expect to get fed? Rule #1: NEVER BITE THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU.
That brings us to this month’s discussion: biting behavior and who’s to blame. But first, my credentials. Based on records meticulously kept by my staff here at For the Love of Cats (the island’s famous no-kill cat shelter), since my arrival here in 2010 I have bitten nearly every single one of the shelter’s 80 volunteers. And that makes me an expert. As a matter of fact, that’s how I ended up here in the first place. I bit my way out of a happy fur-ever home. In my human’s eyes I’d morphed from being a cute kitten with harmless baby teeth, to being a nearly homicidal 10-month old cat with adult-sized teeth. Consequently, my “fur-ever” family kicked me to the curb just shy of my first birthday.
But it wasn’t my fault. I thought they liked being bitten based on their reactions. They cooed and chuckled and rough-housed with me, rolling me over on my back, tickling my belly, and letting me play paw-swat and nip-the-finger. It was just like being with mom and my litter mates. We were always tumbling over and biting each other. If one of us bit another kitten too hard, the other kitty would cry out so we knew to stop. If we didn’t stop, mom would end the game. There was a practical purpose to these games, however. Mom wanted to train us to be skillful predators and successful rodent hunters. Under her steely supervision we learned to stalk, slither, and pounce our way to our next meal. In lieu of that, a dumpster would do the job.
When I moved to my human’s fur-ever home, my biting was further encouraged when, in fact, it should have been discouraged. Remember, to tolerate a behavior is to enable its continuance. My predatory instincts needed to be re-directed to interactive play, such as wand toys, laser toys, or even battery operated mice and geckos. I kept biting and was eventually getting regular slaps on the face and nose. This really confused me. And before I could figure it out, I found myself out on the street, diving dumpsters for scraps of food. After awhile some angels from For the Love of Cats saw me and came to my rescue. I’ve been queen of the shelter ever since.
It didn’t take long, however, for the shelter staff to figure out I was a biter. Efforts were made to extinguish the predator within my tortie soul. But I was a terrible student. When even “clicker” training failed, my file was stamped, in big red letters: “UN-ADOPTABLE”. My travel papers came through: I was to be placed in a cat sanctuary way, way, way up on the Florida map (yes, I am a good map reader).
While waiting for a space on the bus, shelter co-founders Jim and Jan Rich made a life-saving discovery – I had a knack for handling kittens and other new arrivals. My bossy, take-charge attitude seemed to put the newbies at ease. Following my lead, they started trusting humans and letting the staff flood them with TLC. Jim and Jan decided I was such an asset that they cancelled my bus reservation and appointed me “Shelter Supervisor,” a position I held for four years. I’ve since gone into semi-retirement and now hold the title “Shelter Supervisor Emeritus.” Super Bowl Sunday marked my fifth anniversary here.
Why do cats bite? First and foremost, we are hunters. Biting is a large part of our predatory behavior; it’s how we get our next meal. It’s how we spend our time when we’re not napping. This is all well and good until we get adopted and the folks in our new fur-ever home rough-house with us to see cute behavior. They run their hands under a sheet or towel and act very happy seeing us pounce, and bite at our hidden “prey.” Once our adult teeth drop into place, however, the bites start to hurt and we get slapped. Where did the peals of happy laughter go? What did I do to make my person so upset? Rule #2: NEVER HIT A CAT. We are not like dogs. If our tail is seemingly wagging it’s not because we’re happy. It’s a warning to our tormentor that we will strike unless you back off.
So who’s to blame for this conundrum? The blame rests solely on the shoulders of your person. They have been reinforcing a behavior which, in fact, they should have been discouraging from day one. Rule #3: TO TOLERATE IS TO ENABLE. If you don’t change the way you play with your cat, you’ve pretty much ruined his or her life, especially if hissing and growling accompany the biting. At that point, you have a cat full of fear and anxiety who knows only one behavior: biting.
Cat bites are serious and usually become infected because there is so much bacteria in our mouths. Much like a venomous snake, our teeth are perfectly designed to inject that bacteria deep into human tissue and can even penetrate joints, bones, tendons, and tendon sheaths. The most penetrating bites can lead to loss of a joint, surgery, and on rare occasion permanent nerve damage. These wounds can go viral in 4-8 hours and almost always get infected.
My ghost writer, the volunteer to whom I dictate each month’s article, nearly lost a finger joint a few years back. She was prying open the jaws of a labrador retriever who had chased and captured her cat, an Egyptian Mau named “Hodges”. The terrorized cat, a brand new addition to her menagerie, repeatedly bit her hands, thinking that would get him out of “Fang’s” jaws-of-life like grip. Said ghostly writer waited too long to seek medical attention and required IV antibiotics, and five courses of oral antibiotics to clear the deepest infections. Hodges didn’t have a mark on him, but he was drenched in dog saliva (I know, pretty yucky right?).
In the unfortunate event that you are bitten, run to the nearest sink and wash your hands with soap and water for 10-15 minutes. Wounds that bleed freely are at lower risk of infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, cat bites are extremely dangerous. And who, you rightly ask, is the most common bite victims? Middle-aged women. Shame on us!
Naomi is a 5 1/2-year-old Tortie and a permanent resident at FLC. She is the shelter supervisor and takes her salary in food.