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Cat Love Bites: What Do They Mean? Why Do Cats Do It?

We’ve all been there: Giving our beautiful cat a tummy tickle and admiring just how gorgeous they are when all of a sudden, your cat is biting your hand and clutching at you with their paws. “Love bites” is a bit of a misnomer, as while they don’t often draw blood, these nips can really hurt.

If you’re curious about this aspect of cat behavior, keep reading to find out more about cat loves bites, what they mean, and exactly why our fluffy little overlords do it.

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Petting-induced overstimulation

a red domestic cat bites its owner's hand
Image Credit: Irzhanova Asel, Shutterstock

Yes, this is a thing. The well-known cat behaviorist, Jackson Galaxy, explains that “the hair follicle receptors in a cat can only take so much petting before it hurts.”

That means you need to be careful not to overstimulate your cat to the point that they feel the need to nip. Warning signs can include tail flicking and your cat’s ears flattening against their head. If their pupils also start to dilate, step away, and save the rest of that petting session for another day!

In this instance, you can assume that your cat’s love bite is in fact a warning sign: “Stop petting me, I’m done.” Some cats might enjoy a small amount of petting, but then want to walk away before you’re done. In this case, let them decide how long they want to be petted for, and let them leave before they get to the point of feeling overstimulated.

A throwback to kittens

It’s thought that some cat love bites could be a throwback to your cat’s kittenhood. Mother cats sometimes nibble their kittens to remove a particularly stubborn stain or tangle in their fur. If your cat seems to be giving you a gentle bite, without body language to indicate that they’re overstimulated, they might just be remembering their days as a kitten.

If you have two or more kittens, you’ll probably see them playing rough together, and this can extend into adulthood too. They may pounce on and bite each other and can sometimes play this way with you as well. Allowing your cute and tiny kitten to play with you to the point that they bite can, unfortunately, end up with them growing up thinking that this is okay behavior.

While a kitten bite doesn’t hurt much, a playful bite from a fully-grown cat certainly can.

A small gray kitten in the arms of a Caucasian woman
Image Credit: Yuliya Alekseeva, Shutterstock

Biting during playtime

If your cat is biting your hand during a play session, you can solve this by removing your hands from the equation. Rather than playing with a toy that you need to hold, use a wand toy or one on a string. You could even clicker train your cat and teach them to play fetch instead!

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How to deal with cat love bites

The best thing to do is to start watching your cat’s body language. Watch out for any signs that your cat may give you before they move in for a bite. Twitching tails and flattened ears are signs that your cat has had enough.

Start to pay attention to when your cat starts biting. They may enjoy 10 soothing strokes, and then start swishing their tail. You can try to remember to keep the amount that you pet your cat below their maximum threshold.

A woman is playing with a cat
Image Credit: Vital9s, Shutterstock

Start giving your cat just six to eight petting strokes, and then stop before giving them a treat. That way, your cat creates a positive association with the petting, rather than with stroking them for longer than they’re comfortable with.

Your cat may be quite happy being stroked in certain areas, like along their back or near their ears, but move in for a bite if you start petting them on their belly. So, start paying attention to whether your cat bites more when they’re being stroked on a specific area.

It’s also important to let your cat initiate a petting session, rather than picking them up when they’ve been resting or allowing a small child to toddle over while your cat is asleep.

Never punish your cat for giving you a bite, as this may then make them respond with genuine aggression. If they feel cornered and unable to get away, they may give you a genuine bite or scratch through terror or fear. A cat bite or scratch that breaks the skin can become infected and painful, so you might want to go and see your doctor if you have a bite or scratch that isn’t healing or has become red and swollen.

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Respect your cat’s need for space

Cat love bites can happen, and it’s a common behavior. But it can be avoided by carefully watching your cat’s body language and respecting their need for space. Remember to keep petting sessions short and allow your cat to walk away when they’ve had enough. This will allow them to enjoy the sensations without becoming overstimulated. In the long run, this can end up with your cat seeking you out for more petting sessions — under their rules!

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Featured Image: Vika Hova, Shutterstock