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Behavior

When Love Hurts: Demystifying a Cat’s Love Bites
February 29, 2016 (published)

Bigstock man with cat

As a feline practitioner, I like to think of cats as uber intelligent extra-terrestrials wrapped up in typically gorgeous fur suits. That way of thinking helps me think about cat behavior, which can appear alien and unintelligible to most human beings. Try to use dog or people logic to explain a cat’s behavior and you’ll typically wind up frustrated. Cats have their own unique ways of interacting with us mere mortals that often need a bit of ‘splaining.

It’s not unusual in my clinical practice to meet a cat’s wait staff (humans) who complain that they are frequently mouthed by their feline master or mistress. These are not bites per se, although they certainly can escalate in that direction, but more often than not involve a cat mouthing a human’s hand and sometimes involving the very light touch of a fang or two. Often times, pulling the hand away will evoke a much stronger response from kitty, with grabbing onto the hand and sometimes a much harder bite. Cat bites and scratches that break the skin (even a teeny bit) are to be avoided whenever possible, as anyone who has had the unpleasant experience of being bitten and then spent time in an ER on an IV antibiotic drip can attest.

What we’re addressing here are feline love bites, those milder mouthings that can be pleasant or annoying, depending on one’s viewpoint.

Cats show their affection for each other, their wait staff (us), and even objects in the home by facial marking. They don’t shake hands and certainly don’t pet one another. Instead, friendly felines will rub their lips and muzzles on the persons/objects of their desire. In the process, they release pheromones, chemicals that serve not only to mark the cat, person, or object as their own, but also reduce stress in the rubbing cat. Cats who mouth or love bite their humans are taking this type of marking behavior to a more extreme position, if you will.

While this display of affection is all well and good, there are those who don’t enjoy this mouthiness and would like a different way of interacting with their cats. For those of you who fall into this category, here are some tips:

  1. Try to correlate the love bites with any behavior on your part. There are some cats who become agitated with petting, don’t like chin rubs, etc. In fact, there is a group of cats who have hyperesthesia syndrome and vary greatly on how much physical interaction they can tolerate before biting (often hard). If you can link the love bites to your petting or rubbing your cat, then you can intervene by stopping or reducing your behavior and see if things settle down.

  2. Never use punishment (swatting or hitting) on a cat who love bites. This only serves to agitate the cat further and can escalate the biting (see the above note about the ER visit and IV drip). Instead, use a reward system, such as treats, when the cat shows appropriate behavior.

  3. Don’t quickly pull your hand away. Being visual predators, cats are designed to track movement and are often revved up by the moving hand, foot, or ankle. While not pulling your hand away seems counter-intuitive, lack of movement often stops the behavior.

  4. Use toys (feather sticks, balls, etc.) to interact with your cat in a hands-free manner.

  5. Provide environmental enrichment for your cat each day. This is especially true for those cats who live alone and whose humans need to work long hours outside the home to pay for cat food. There are videos of birds and small mammals, cat treat balls, mazes, and other amusements that can keep your cat entertained in your absence and reduce stress. The only limitations on these are your credit card limit and your imagination.

Finally, if your cat’s behavior is becoming a problem, seek out the expertise of your cat’s veterinarian. This is especially true if your cat’s behaviors suddenly change, are ramped up, or new behaviors occur. The veterinarian may refer you and your cat to a veterinary behaviorist. These colleagues can increasingly be found in most major cities, at many of the veterinary medical schools; some provide telephone consultations. Behavior modification training and sometimes the use of various medications and even prescription diets are used to change unwanted behavior. Oftentimes, a consultation with a bit of follow-up is all one needs to get the human-cat relationship back on track.

Of course, if you fall into the group of humans who don’t think your cat’s love bites are excessive, you can bask in the knowledge that what your cat is telling you is that you’re owned.

But I bet you’ve known that all along.

5 Comments

Mr. St.
December 1, 2017

Our newly adopted, very affectionate, male cat likes to bite my face in the morning. Initially, I thought it was because he wanted food, but he even does it when he still has food in his bowl.  It seems to me that he does it out of affection, because his bites are accompanied by purring and headbutts.  This morning he broke the skin of my ear. :( 


Joanien
October 2, 2017

Hoo boy!  My 18th kitty started out nibbling my face a year ago.  He'd jump up on the bed in the early morning start headbutting & purring, then he'd gnaw gently on mu cheekbones or chin. Now he prefers to suck a fold of skin from my neck between his front teeth and bite down gently, or attempt to take my whole cheekbone into his jaws and suck. He has never broken the skin and seems surprised when I very, VERY carefully disengage him. I don't know what to think!


KJ Gray
September 2, 2017

I have a recently adopted male who was described to me as 'very needy', by his former owners. And he sure is affectionate. Not long after he got here, he began biting me but very, very gently. He's never done it hard enough to hurt or damage my skin and he never holds on. I can't link the 'love bites' to any specific actions on my part, but he particularly likes to do it in the morning when I''m using the washroom. He always follows me in there,  purring and rubbing on me most of the time, but then he'll toss in a quick grab with his teeth on my leg, usually. He's never caused me pain and it doesn't bother me that he does it, but he is the only cat I've ever had that does this sort of biting. Based on what I read, he's either marking me or very attached to me, which I find a bit surprising since he's only been with me a couple of months. He is very careful when he does it; quite deliberate about it and he'll often look right at me as he does it too. He closes his fangs and molars around my arm or wrist or thigh but never puts on any real pressure. There's always something new to learn about cat's behaviour.


Jess
June 15, 2017

My cat just started this new thing where he will wake up to my alarm clock and pur and lick and  bite me till i wake it! If any park of my skin is visible he bites it! I love my cat so much but it is starting to get frustrating.


Denise Walding
March 10, 2017

My cat usually jumps on my bed of a morning .licks my hand then bites it hard often breaking the skin.



 
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