Cat Love Bites: An Interesting Type of Communication

And what to do if your cat bites you.

When I was 12, I found three kittens abandoned behind a grocery store. After confirming that they were indeed homeless, I picked them up, tucked them into my bicycle basket and brought them to a nearby shelter. Of course, by that time I reached the shelter, I was already in love and called my mother to tell her the situation. I had inherited my soft spot for animals from my mother and sure enough she agreed that one of the kittens could join the menagerie of dogs, pet rats, chinchillas, hamsters, and birds that lived with our family.

The cat I chose was a black cat with a white patch on its chest that I named Basil, as I was working through a love affair with the British comedy, Fawlty Towers. Basil was a good cat who roamed indoors and out and loved a good cuddle. He was a well-behaved cat save for the fact that when he was curled up on your lap for a few scritches, purring away, you never knew when he would suddenly open his mouth and start gnawing on you. Those little love bites rarely drew blood, but they were alarming. What makes a good cat turn their beloved owner into the human equivalent of a dog's chew toy?

Portrait of tabby cat biting and scratching owner's hand
Getty Images / Westend61

Turns out that biting owners during petting is a fairly common behavioral problem with cats. Now, when we talk about love bites, we are not talking about aggressive or fear-based biting where the cat is hissing or its hackles are up. Instead, love bites are when the cat is otherwise calm and relaxed and then bites, usually without breaking the skin. According to Catster, if you're petting your cat and they start chomping gently on your finger with their little love bites, it could be precisely because all your lovin' has over-stimulated them, leading to the biting. Other cats simply don't like to be pet and, according to a cat behavior specialist who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald, too much rubbing can hurt some cats, because their hair follicle receptors can start to hurt if they are rubbed too much. Of course, some cats aren't in pain, but simply playing rough. According to a vet who spoke to the Huffington Post, some cats start chomping when they are being playful, similar to how they would wrestle as kittens.

Whatever the cause of the biting, t's generally a good idea to stop petting a cat who is biting you. "When cats bite in this context, it's not a sign of affection, but rather a signal that the cat is done with the interaction. If the petting continues despite the cat's efforts to signal that he or she is done with being petted, the cat may escalate to a bite," Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago told PetMD.

If your cat does start biting you while you're petting them, stop what you're doing but don't punish the cat. "The owner should never scruff, shake, spray, or frighten the cat in any way; this can cause the cat to respond with true and dangerous aggression," Dr. Terri Bright, Director of Behavior Services at MSPCA-Angell in Boston, told PetMD. Instead, just give the cat a break.

If your cat does give you a love bite that happens to break the skin, wash the little bite immediately. If there is persistent swelling, pain, or redness, go see your doctor.

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