Behavior

When Love Hurts: Demystifying a Cat’s Love Bites

Some people don’t enjoy this mouthiness

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.

15 Comments

Jasmin Worden
August 23, 2020

Hi there! My cat sleeps in my bed, and he’s always been very cuddly & a big purr-er! In the morning he gets up and will rub his face on mine and purr, if I’m awake I will pet him, sometimes not! Recently in the morning instead of nudging me with his nose, he chomps down on my chin!! He will be purring and acting lovey but chomps my cheek and chin! Why did he start doing this!!


Daniel Burke
June 3, 2020

My cat is a huge cuddler, when I sit on the couch or bed he scoots closer and presses close and purrs loudly and often headbutts my arm and rubs his jaw against me then opens his mouth and chews on my arm while purring. It’s usually not painful but he can get a little enthusiastic. He is very gentle for a cat with claws and teeth resembling the size of a bobcats even when he wrestles and kicks my hand and arm when playing rough and/or has had enough. I always have taken the chewing as a sign of affection as it’s not out of anger or fear.


Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
March 24, 2020

Hi Anne,  Ouch!  That sounds painful!  I'd suggest trying some of the techniques Dr. Gaspar discusses in the article such as trying to figure out which of your actions seem to trigger her biting and scratching, and also using toys like a small ball to keep her occupied.


Anne Cooper
March 20, 2020

I have bite and scratch on both arms, I know it meant to be love, it is  awful,  I have to treat with antiseptic,  I have a very tight budget ,  she lives inside doesn’t  go any anywhere, I am desparate,  poor and   I love her Please help


Mary
May 12, 2019

My Sheba was a kitten given to me as a present. Over time (maybe 3-4 years later) she started attacking my lower legs at night when I walked away from her to go to bed.  It got to a point that I had to walk backwards saying “No!” repeatedly and hurry and shut the bedroom door. She was at that time the only cat and left alone during the day while I worked. The attacking behavior when I walked away from her to go to bed became worse (she only acted this way at night when I went to bed.)  It culminated one night when I didn’t turn around and she flew up to the back of my thigh with claws and teeth and bit me. I couldn’t believe it had come to this with me trying to get this ‘wild animal’ off my leg. I was sobbing as as I wiped the blood streaming down my leg not only because of the pain but because I really loved her and feared I would have to give her away and who would want a cat like this. That was a last resort.  I firmly believe she was taken away from her mom and siblings too soon. So I decided to get another cat (a young 2-3 month old).  Problem solved. She never chased me or attacked me again.


Kristy
January 6, 2019

My cat was rescued as a wild stray....she is terrified of anyone new....takes forever to let anyone pet her.....but maulls me every chance she gets...try to pet her she pins me down to lick and bite me while purring most times....she has a cocatoo as a friend  they actually share and play


Cassandra Gale
December 6, 2018

I have a 1 year old half siamese half tabby Male he has a bunch of toys yo play with and another cat that plays with him, but at night when he desides to snuggle and give me kisses, but then he'll start biting my hands sometimes its love bites and sometimes its harder so what should I try to get him to stop at bedtime?


Joyce I Keay
November 27, 2018

I adopted a one-year-old neutered male cat from a shelter a couple of weeks ago.  The cat's history was not good.  The first thing on his history is that he was seen being thrown out of a car window on a busy highway and rescued, then brought from Florida to Massachusetts where I rescued him.  Twice recently I've been on the couch and he has come up face to face with me and then bit me on the neck!  This is most upsetting.  I can't just leave him there. I have to pull him off.  I truthfully do not remember having petted him just before it happened the second time believing that the first time might have resulted from being overstimulated.  So how do I prevent this in the future?  He does tend to bite when overstimulated so I am reducing the number of times I stroke him at any one time.  I do not know if this neck biting might be a dominance thing.  Suggestions please as to how  to stop this.


Ashley
July 28, 2018

I successfully trained my cat, using applied behavior analysis and behavior modification techniques. It did not take long to extinguish this aggressive biting behavior. History of said cat- she was taken from mother too early, she cried for weeks calling her mom. She very conflicted with me because of this – she knew I took care of her and loved her, but she knew she wanted her real mom. I started taking mental notes of what triggered the behavior, and antecedent circumstances. She would be lying by my side, perfectly content, purring, curling her paws with me petting her favorite areas. Sometimes I she bit me because I pet the wrong areas, and sometimes it was just too much love for her. It’s as if she realized she became “too close” to me, and so, mentally, she switched to instinctual protection mode. She used rabbit-kicking along with a very aggressive bite, breaking skin. So when realized this behavior was about occur, I pulled my hands and arms out harm’s way, and held open palms at her level. At this point, she’s growling and really getting ready to strike. With my hands in the shape similar to a high-five, again, at her level, she backed off. This happened upwards of ten times. Soon, she able to independently stop herself and simply leave my side instead attacking. Usually, she would go to her food and eat. I’ve had Muppet for five wonderful years, and she hasn’t exhibited this behavior in over a year. The training doesn’t need specified amount time, only consistency, persistence, and patience with your furry loved one.


Becca
June 8, 2018

I have a a male cat that has been fixed. He was found at a store and needed a home so my husband brought him to me. 12 years later we are a great together especially after I lost my dog  He has never broken skin or been aggressive One time he nibble little too rough and I dramatically let out a cry teaching him it was too rough ( he never did it again. He was purring and seemed happy. I think they learn some things from humans too. U know when u get kinda excited and affectionate, they pick up on things we do and reciprocate in the only way they know.Cats are great learners within their feline abilities.. I have seen roughly handled cats and they really are traumatized by what some people do.many things are abusive to them. Always positive education. Go with the flow of each type of cat. My son saw his cat always drinking from tub or sink( spilling regular bowls of water). He was able to get a dog water bottle (looks like a hamster water dispenser). Used treats ,patience , good job" like u would a dog. Now this cat prefers drinking from the bottle  U can't always teach them tricks u want but pick the habits that affect u the most. Cats get bored so I even got a cat harness to take the cat outside .wish we could afford cat fencing. Get creative.


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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