Cat Love Bites aka Cat Nipping: Why They Do It and How to Stop It
By Dr. Suzanne Wilson, DVM March 27, 2019
Cats are very unique creatures and often times trying to make sense of their behavior can seem like a fruitless task. Case in point - the mysterious love bite. As a general practitioner, I often have clients complain about their cats nipping them, which usually occurs during periods of loving affection. Though these mild nips can be annoying, they rarely escalate to more than the touch of a tooth to your skin.
The Reason For Cat Love Bite Behavior
In an attempt to decode this behavior, we need to understand how cats communicate. Cats show their affection for the people, objects, and housemates they love by facial marking, which is done when they rub their lips and cheeks on the objects of their desire. In the process, they release pheromones and chemicals that serve not only to mark the receiver as their own, but also to reduce environmental stress. When cats love bite their humans, they are elevating their marking behavior to a more extreme position.
How To Tell If It’s A Love Bite
So how do you tell the difference between an affectionate nibble and an actual bite? Well, typically love bites involve only mouthing with a light touch of the teeth and occur while the cat is exhibiting other attention seeking behavior such as meowing for your attention or rubbing against your arms and legs. Often with love bites, if you try to quickly pull your hand away, this will trigger a stronger response from the cat, and they will reach out to grab you or advance to a harder bite.
Alternatively, if a cat is trying to bite you out of aggression, frustration, or fear, they will typically succeed in breaking the skin which is a situation that should always be taken seriously as cat bites can lead to serious infections. True cat bites often occur in different scenarios than love bites do. A cat may bite out of aggression, or being petted in areas of the body they don’t prefer. It may even be a misdirected bite when an alternate stimulus is bothering the cat, or it may even occur seemingly out of nowhere. But nonetheless, the situation is less common when they have sought you out to shower them with affection.
Why Cats May Nip
There are many reasons why a cat may nip you other than as a way to tell you how much they love you. Cats use nipping or biting behavior as a way to communicate. They are typically trying to say either “No! Stop that!,” “I’m scared!,” “Give me some affection!,” or “I want to play!” Cats can also bite when teething as kittens or as part of hunting behavior. Hunting behavior bites are usually associated with chasing, sprinting, or unexpected attacks. However, usually these behaviors are directed at other cats or dogs in the home and less likely towards humans.
How to Avoid the Love Bite
There is not one specific thing that will make a cat more likely to exhibit love bites. However, there is an important distinction to be made between love bites and a condition in cats called hyperesthesia syndrome. Cats with hyperesthesia syndrome, a compulsive disorder, can only tolerate a small amount of physical interaction before resorting to biting. They often act as though being petted is painful and their skin begins to twitch, especially along their lower back and the base of their tail. If this behavior is noted, then seeking medical advice from a veterinarian is recommended.
To avoid being nipped by your cat requires careful understanding of what is inciting the cat to nip. Try to establish a link between your behavior and when the cat reacts by nipping. If you can make a connection between your petting behavior and the nipping, then intervene by stopping or reducing this behavior and monitor for a coinciding reduction in nipping. Additionally, rewarding this behavior by continuing to give attention or affection only acts to reinforce the unwanted behavior. So immediately stopping the interaction and walking away from your cat when they nip can help communicate to them that this behavior is undesired.
While the display of affection through nipping can be endearing, if you are someone who doesn’t enjoy this behavior then the following suggestions can help discourage it:
- Never use negative reinforcement training or punishment to stop a cat from giving love bites. This will only agitate the cat further and can result in an escalation of the biting. Punishment can also affect the bond between you and your cat and may even lead to fear, aggression, and/or anxiety.
- Use positive reinforcement training, such as offering tasty treats or extra petting, when the cat shows appropriate behavior. If you want to learn more about positive reinforcement training, please read our article here.
- Don’t abruptly pull your hand away. Being visual predators, cats are designed to track movement and are often incited by quickly moving objects. While not pulling your hand away seems counter-intuitive, lack of movement often stops the behavior. In addition, owners that run and/or yell when bitten may also encourage and worsen inappropriate hunting behaviors.
- Provide environmental enrichment for your cat by purchasing toys that require them to perform a small task to get a treat. Play videos of birds or fish (search the internet for Cat TV) while you’re gone. Provide hunting simulation toys that will keep your cat mentally stimulated. This can significantly reduce stress and decrease the need for mouthing and biting.
- Make sure you are providing a good outlet for biting behaviors. Kittens especially need plenty of playtime and safe encouragement for hunting behaviors. Use toys such as feather sticks, balls, or ribbons to interact with your cat in a hands-free manner.
- Consult a veterinarian if attempts to discourage nipping behavior are unsuccessful. Additionally, veterinary behaviorists may be needed if love bites escalate to attacks.
Keep in mind that the tips provided may not work with all cats and in all situations. Consider it a work in progress. But with consistent implementation of training strategies, you should see positive results. If your attempts to discourage nipping behavior are unsuccessful or the mild nipping behavior progresses to overt aggression, you should consult your veterinarian. Additionally, veterinary behaviorists may be a useful resource and can be found in most big cities or in association with most veterinary schools. Alternatively, if you’re one of the cat owners out there who doesn’t mind the playful nips, then you can relish in the fact that your cat is just trying to communicate that they really love you. They would definitely appreciate you returning the love by refilling the food bowl!