If your kitty has ever given your hand a quick nibble in the midst of your cuddle session, you may be wondering to yourself, what gives? These so-called ‘love bites’ are more complex than you may realize and actually not fully understood by behaviorists.
Most explanations and understanding of them are anecdotal and not everyone agrees on the nomenclature as it exists. Looking at the broader topic of cat bites, behaviorists must rely on other clues to understand what’s going on.
What A Love Bite Isn’t
Deciphering what a cat’s bite means involves understanding the context in which it occurred, body language, and ultimately what the cat was feeling at that time. This is not only a concern for behaviorists but any cat owner as well, as it’s an important aspect towards maintaining good welfare for your animal.
Love bites only refer to bites that occur when your cat is interacting with you in a positive way; meaning, when they’re in a good mood. Recognizing the body language of a happy cat is usually pretty easy.
Slow blinks, closed eyes, upright ears and tail, soft fur, and purring are all good indicators that you’ve got a content cat on your hands. Also look at the situation: Is your cat on your lap enjoying pets or is this a new cat who is hiding that you’re meeting for the first time?
A frightened or stressed cat will have their ears back, a thumping tail, raised hair, and may emit a low growl or hiss. A cat biting you in this situation is obviously acting defensively and is saying go away or leave me alone. Additionally, love bites will almost never break the skin.
An aggressive bite is associated with body language indicating fear or acting territorial and often may occur out of nowhere. On the other hand, love bites usually happen after some buildup of the cat interacting with you.
A cat may start with licking you and this will gradually become more intense until it lightly bites you. Furthermore, after a love bite, the cat will typically still engage with you. Whereas after an aggressive bite, you would expect them to run away.
Reasons Why Cat Love Bites Occur
It could be quite confusing especially for first-time feline owners if their pets suddenly bite them after they gave them affection. There are even times that cats seek this on their own – but then, eventually, marking their owners. So why do cats seem to do this out of nowhere?
There are some disagreements about whether love bites can occur through overstimulation and the so-called petting-induced aggression is a term sometimes used interchangeably with love bites. This refers to a cat bite as a result of too much interaction.
This isn’t aggression per se but more of an inappropriate over-the-top reaction to being petted too much. In fact, too much petting can cause discomfort for a cat, so it’s their way of saying ‘I’ve had enough’.
That’s because cats are not usually and even historically, very social. They may enjoy petting at first, but there comes a point when they already get irritated by the repetitiveness.
It can also be unintentional. Some cats like to groom the people they love so they may lick you and use their front teeth. This can also be considered as a cat love nip.
- Improper Socialization
Another theory is also improper socialization at a young age. Cats that have been in human contact until 7 weeks of age will have the tendency to be more trusting to people.
- Health Issues
Sometimes, it can be a painful experience, especially for old cats that have arthritis. Or there may be underlying health conditions that cause pain during petting sessions. You may have petted the wrong way.
A comforting stroke may lead to a sleeping cat on your lap, but then they wake up suddenly and the bite happens. This could be because it hasn’t recognized the affectionate petting as is.
- Feeling of Being Confined
Your cat could have correlated it to confinement. In this situation, it usually runs away after the nipping.
The control theory, meanwhile, describes a cat’s need to control the situation. Cats could be affirming their dominance.
For example, they still want more petting but then, it stops. A situation like this could also induce a love bite. They want to tell everyone that cats rule the world.
- Misdirected Bites
Kittens will often display what appear to be love bites towards their people. But in most cases, this is actually misdirected play or predatory behaviors. Kittens instinctually act out hunting behaviors as training for adulthood. So, a nibble on a finger is not necessarily a love bite, but them thinking this is something to attack.
It’s important to not encourage this in young cats as they can carry the behavior over into adulthood and cause damage as they won’t know their own strength.
- Adulthood Love Bites
An adult cat nibbling softly on your hand when in a happy mood is thought to be a form of nonverbal communication; a gesture of affection. It is believed to be related to a form of social grooming called allogrooming. This is why many love bites are preceded by vigorous licking.
Some behaviorists believe it may also have to do with the soft bites a mother cat will give to her kittens when grooming them. In this way, it’s a remnant of behavior from when they were kittens which makes them feel safe; similar to kneading.
This understanding suggests love bites to be a type of affection, but it’s very important to understand that a cat bite can mean very different things in different situations. Additionally, a deep bite can become a serious medical concern, so you should seek medical attention right away.
Managing Cat Love Bites
You should be able to distinguish between a cat’s love bite and a real bite aggression. There are signs before it occurs. As mentioned, deciphering your cat’s action is one way to avoid any more annoyance.
Every cat is different but you will usually see the swishing of tails before the intent of biting. If you will be able to look into its eyes, it will be dilated right before. Some cats also flatten their ears to show their fear or even irritation. If you see any of these signs, immediately stop the petting session.
It will also help pet parents to determine the sensitivity threshold of your cats. There are some parts of the body that is extra sensitive in cats like their whiskers and the part near their tails so avoid touching them.
If you also noticed that they only wanted to be stroked ten times, then that’s it. No more 11th petting for you.
Try to also not react harshly if a cat nibble on you. This could be a bit challenging as a cat love bite can surprise a human.
Even though love bites can be a sign of affection in specific situations, many owners may still wish to curb them as cats don’t always know appropriate limits and can cause harm to children. Aside from learning to read your cat’s body language, redirecting bites to a stuff plush toy, for example, is one option.
However, any form of aggressive movement on your part may frighten your cat. This can cause it to bite deeper or extend its claws at you.
Desensitization is also recommended by behaviorists to modify your cats’ actions. Try to associate their favorite things to your petting sessions.
Interact with your cat just near enough to its trigger point. Then, giving voice commands to settle down plus a cat treat at the end of the session will help. This needs patience as it does not change your cat’s personality in just a week.
Try a hands-free approach to playing with your cat. The use of toy wands or feathers will definitely lessen the bites.
You want to make sure to use positive reinforcement, not negative, as cats will not understand being yelled at. Use, for example, a reward system of treats when the cats display appropriate behavior that you want to encourage.
Never ever hit your cat if this occurs. Physical punishment will just send the wrong signal. It may become more aggressive than ever.
If the petting-induced aggression worsens, it is best to go to your veterinarian and have your cat checked. There could be an underlying medical condition that initiates the biting because of pain.
If no medical conditions are seen, your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinarian behaviorist which would be in the best position to help you with this particular problem. You may also contact the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists if you need more information.
It would be better to accept early on if your cat doesn’t want to be excessively petted. You can still do other bonding activities aside from petting anyway. A bit of perseverance and becoming observant may come a long way to developing a more agreeable relationship with your cat.