Getting to understand your pet and its various mannerisms ranks among the most rewarding aspects of being a cat owner. With that being said, one of the feline behaviors that people sometimes find surprising and confusing is the tendency for them to lightly bite. In fact, some people even mistake this for an act of aggression.
Why Does My Cat Bite Me Lightly? Generally, this is a ‘cat love bite’. It is one of the non-verbal ways cats communicate and is used to show happiness or affection. However, depending on the situation, it can also be used to request attention or to tell you that your cat is over-stimulated.
You may be wondering: how do I distinguish between these bites and know what my cat is trying to say? I will cover this in more detail, but it tends to depend on the context in which the bite occurs. It is also important to understand the different kinds of cat bites, and how to respond to each of them appropriately.
Understanding Light Cat Bites
Many cat lovers experience a sense of shock or confusion the first time their cat suddenly bites them gently on the hand or arm. My cat keeps biting me, my cat keeps nipping me – it is important to understand that this is not a sign of aggression. Instead, it is an example of a cat’s “lovebite” and it is a natural part of feline behavior, which is almost always affectionate.
A cat may bite you as a form of communication:
- To show affection, love, and happiness;
- A desire for attention or petting;
- Overstimulation, or overexcitement.
There is no 100 percent fool-proof way of knowing which of these things your cat is trying to communicate. Yet, you can generally tell from the timing of the bite and the circumstances it occurs in. In my experience, cats tend to display this behavior in a few common situations and these can serve as important clues.
Perhaps the most common example of cat love bites occurs when you are stroking your cat. If you are stroking your cat calmly and it seems otherwise happy, the bite is almost certainly a sign of affection and happiness. Your cat lightly bites you to mimic the way cats and kittens affectionately interact with each other. Similarly, if you are playing with your cat, it may playfully bite you. Again, this is a sign of happiness and is a natural part of cat play.
Your cat may also bite you lightly when you are playing rough, or when you stroke it for a long period of time, and this is typically a way of communicating that he or she is overstimulated, or over-excited. When a cat’s hair follicle receptors become cause overstimulation, petting or stroking actually starts to hurt slightly. In this context, the light bite or nibble is used as a cue for you to stop petting, or to stroke more gently for a while.
Finally, your cat might lightly bite you, even when you are not stroking or playing with it. This is most likely to be an affectionate way of them seeking attention, and your cat is basically requesting that you stroke or play with it. This may also be accompanied by other similar behaviors, such as purring, or your cat rubbing its body against you.
These common examples should help you to understand what is being communicated when your cat lightly bites you. It may take a little bit of getting used to, but gradually growing to understand non-verbal cues from your cat, such as little non-painful bites, is important and can help you to build a better relationship.
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How to Respond to A Gentle Bite
At this stage, you may be wondering what you should do when your cat gently bites you, and how to respond. Again, the answer is somewhat complicated, because it depends on the reason for the bite and what your cat is trying to tell you. Generally, however, the light biting is not painful and will not pierce or break the skin. This, combined with the fact that it is natural behavior, means it may be best to just accept it.
If your cat is biting to indicate overstimulation, the best advice is to simply stop stroking or playing with your cat, at least until it has calmed down a little. In many cases, cat owners become much better at reading their cat’s body language over time, and as you get better at this, you may learn to stop before the biting even begins.
Nevertheless, some cat owners would like to deter the biting behavior and there are a few techniques that can be useful here. If your cat is biting you during play, you can discourage it by ceasing play each time your cat bites, and by rewarding it each time it plays using its paws instead. Rewards can include general affection, or treats.
Some people find success by giving a sudden and sharp “No!” or a hiss sound each time a bite happens, and this can help to establish that biting hands, fingers and toes are not allowed. The key to this approach is consistency, as you will need to ensure you are using the same word or sound, and you will also need to make sure you do it every single time a bite is attempted. Think of this as more of an interruption than a punishment.
Furthermore, providing your cat with plenty of chewable toys can help.
When a Bite is NOT a Love Bite
While the vast majority of bites your cat gives you will be light and harmless love bites, cats are also perfectly capable of causing real harm with their bites if they become more aggressive. For this reason, it is essential that you gain an understanding of the signs that a bite is motivated more by aggression than affection. Crucially, what begins as love biting can also progress towards more aggressive and dangerous biting.
The key things to watch out for with your cat are signs of agitation, which can indicate that any biting that follows might be born out of aggression or frustration, rather than love. Common indicators of this include your cat’s ears pinning back and its pupils dilating. Prior to biting, your cat may also make a hissing or growling sound.
If you see these signs of agitation and you are currently stroking or playing with your cat, you should immediately cease what you are doing. You should avoid any sort of physical retaliation, as this will only trigger your cat’s instinct to fight back, escalating the aggression further. In the unlikely event that your cat’s biting you and won’t release, you should push your hand or arm towards the bite, rather than pulling away, to encourage safe release.
Aggressive cat bites can be dangerous because cats have small yet sharp teeth, which can very easily pierce or break the skin. The biggest danger here is that bacteria is essentially injected into the wound, resulting in infection. For this reason, you should wash bite wounds as quickly and thoroughly as you can, using soap and water. If you have any concerns at all about infection, visit your doctor and seek their advice.
If your cat is persistently aggressive, you should speak to a vet and explain its behavior.
Protecting Children From Bites
Finally, while cats can be perfect pets for households with kids, I can also fully understand why you might want tips on how to deal with cats potentially biting your child. After all, despite the fact that cat love bites are mostly harmless for adults, they can hurt children, who have a much lower threshold for pain. Moreover, a cat bite, even if intended to be light and playful, can scare children and prevent them from forming a close bond with your cat.
The main challenge when it comes to protecting children from cat bites is likely to be the child’s behavior. It is not uncommon for children to go slightly over the top when stroking or playing with cats, which can lead to over-stimulation or even annoyance. I would personally advise that you supervise interactions between children and your cat, and look out for the signs I have described in this article, so you can step in before any biting occurs.
Many cats naturally pick up on the vulnerability of children and refrain from biting them, although others treat them like they would treat a kitten, which can result in attempts at playful, affectionate biting. In these cases, it may be best to use the aforementioned technique of interrupting with a firm “No!” or a hissing sound, and doing this consistently, until your cat gets the picture that the child is off limits for that kind of play.
As children get slightly older, you can teach them many of the principles I have covered, such as looking out for the warning signs of irritation, and learning what light biting actually means in different situations. You should also take the time to praise and reward your cat for things like soft paw play, in order to reinforce the behavior.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.