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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use toys (feather sticks, balls, etc.) to interact with your cat in a hands-free manner.
- 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.
November 21, 2021
Victoria L. Wisdom
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.