If you're a cat butler (err, owner) you've probably experienced a "love bite" or two. Love bites usually happen in the midst of kitty cuddle time. One minute your kitty will be purring away as you pet them, the next they're nibbling and nipping at your hands. My cat Rascal has a fondness for my chomping down on my knuckles. This odd behavior may leave many cat owners wondering, "Why is my cat biting me out of nowhere?"
Biting is a form of communication for cats. They can bite for more than a few reasons: fear, aggression, defensiveness, or acting territorially. But did you know that many cats give their owners gentle nibbles and nips as a display of affection? Hence the name "Love Bites"! Cats show their affection for us humans in several ways - you just have to know what to look for.
What is a Love Bite?
Love bites generally start as licks and graduate into gentle nips and nibbles that don't break the skin. Some cat behaviorists believe that love bites are reminiscent of a cat's kittenhood when their mothers would lick and nibble them during grooming. So if your cat is giving you a gentle nibble or lick, it can be seen as a sign of affection.
And believe it or not, though domestic cats aren't usually seen as "social" animals, they actually enjoy participating in what's called "allogrooming." Allogrooming is a social grooming behavior that helps increase bonds among social groups, in this case, you and your kitty; much like a pride of lions.
So, how can you tell what is and isn't a love bite? A love bite generally doesn't break the skin. And when your kitty is giving you these gentle nibbles, there won't be other signs of fear or aggression, like hissing, growling, and clawing. Engaging in "love bite" behavior, your cat's body language will be relaxed and calm.
However, as most cat owners know: sometimes these gentle nibbles and licks can be a sign that your cat is overstimulated and they're letting you know, gently, that it's time to stop. If you've ever been petting your cat only to have their gentle nibbles escalate suddenly into a harder bite, your cat may be experiencing overstimulation. If you have multiple cats that groom each other, you may notice this behavior during grooming time, too.
Cats may experience overstimulation due to the sensitivity of their hair follicles - after an extended period of petting or pressure, it can begin to hurt and cause discomfort in cats. Gentle nips may be your cat letting you know petting time is over; these warnings may be paired with other signs of discomfort, such as tail swishing or flicking, skin twitching over the back, flattening of the ears, freezing, tenseness or staring, quick head turn to watch your hand as you pet, pupillary dilation, or walking away and lying down.
How to Stop "Love Bites"
While love bites can often be a sign of affection, they can still hurt or cause discomfort to us cat owners. It's okay to discourage this behavior.
1. When your cat gives you love bites, don't quickly pull your hand away. Instead, stop moving your hand altogether until the nibbles stop, then move your hand. Cats are visual predators and the movement of your hand may encourage their prey drive and make them chomp down harder, purely out of instinct.
Don't yell at or swat your cat, as this may result in fearful or aggressive behavior. Instead, use a reward system, such as treats, when the cat shows appropriate behavior.
2. If your cat gives you love bites a little too often, try a hands-off play style. Use interactive toys such as a variety of wand toys or even an app-controlled cat toy to encourage bonding with your cat without the love bites.
Does your cat give you love bites? Let us know in the comments!