Why does my cat bite me gently?
“It’s like he’s bipolar,” a cat guardian was explaining to me recently. “One minute he’s on my lap, purring, and the next he’s sinking his teeth into me.”
Has your cat ever bitten you? Does it feel unpredictable, like you’re certain your cat is enjoying himself, right up until the moment he bites?
Or does it feel like a play bite? Like she wants to engage you in some fun, but always seems to take it too far?
Or maybe you’re not even interacting with your cat when it happens. You’re walking to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee when your cat springs from underneath the sofa to bite your ankles.
Cat bites happen, and they happen for different reasons, under different circumstances, and they differ in meaning, depending upon who your cat is.
The one thing all cat bites have in common is that they are the result of your cat trying to tell you something. Your cat can’t speak to you, can’t send you a text, or write you a letter. He has a limited ability to explain himself and biting happens to be one of the tools in his communication toolbox.
Nobody likes to be bitten, especially by someone they love. The way to stop the biting is to first see it for what it is: your cat trying to tell you something that is very important to her.
Let’s discuss all the reasons your cat may be biting you, and what to do about it.
(But be sure to read this too, "What to do if a cat bites or scratches you.")
Your cat is biting because you’re petting him too much
We humans love our cats. We love them a little too much, apparently. Study after study has shown that humans are hardwired to be attracted to cute things and to want to take care of them. When we see a baby or a cute animal, like our cats, it stimulates a part of our brains called the orbitofrontal cortex, which makes sure we give the baby or cute animal our full attention.
Humans are also highly social creatures. We love to touch to show affection. And petting is soothing. “It focuses our attention, as happens in meditation.” Dr. John Amodeo wrote in Psychology Today. There is nothing so relaxing as the rhythmic motion of stroking a cat’s luxurious fur.
Cats, while social creatures themselves, are not as social as we are. And they don’t tend to have as much physical contact with others of their kind as we do.
In truth, they may enjoy our attentions at first, or even ask to be petted, but then the petting becomes too much for them. This is called “petting intolerance,” or “petting-induced aggression,” or “overstimulation aggression.”
Think of it the way you might feel about being tickled. A little bit of tickling might be pleasant at first, but then it becomes tortuous, and eventually, if the tickler doesn’t stop, almost painful.
The hard part for the person who gets bit while petting a cat is that it seems like the aggression comes out of the blue. But it doesn’t if you know what to look for. By the time your cat has bitten you, she’s already been trying to tell you to stop, but you haven’t been listening.
What to do if your cat is biting because you’re petting him too much
First, read about how to pet a cat. You wouldn’t think there was that much to it, but there is. Make sure that you’re petting the right way in the right places to start with so that there’s a fighting chance your cat will actually enjoy your touch.
Invite your cat to interact with you and let him control the petting session. Don’t just grab a sleeping or resting cat and plop him on your lap just because you’re in the mood to pet your cat. Don’t restrain your cat when he’s finished with the petting. Let him leave your lap whenever he’s ready.
Understand that some cats are better cuddlers than others. Some cats love human attention, and love to be held. Others enjoy being close to you and sitting on your lap, but would like you to keep your hands to yourself. Others are happier with even less contact. Your cat is who he is.
Become an observer of your cat. Your cat will use body language to tell you she’s starting to run out of patience with the petting. Here are some signs of growing discomfort:
- A twitching or swishing tail
- Ears flattened back
- Dilated pupils
- A low growl
- A tense or stiffening body
- Skin twitching on the back
- A quick turn to watch your hand as you pet
Yes, the signs can be subtle that your cat has reached a petting threshold. But once you learn what to look for, suddenly that vicious bite that seemed to come from nowhere doesn’t look quite so unprovoked.
In addition to watching for signs of petting intolerance, learn to predict your cat’s preferences so you can stop petting before he starts to become irritated. Does your cat start showing signs of annoyance after five strokes? Stop at four next time. Does your cat seem to hate a full-body stoke? Try shorter strokes. Does your whole hand seem too much for him? Try a single finger. Or learn to just enjoy his company, sans petting.
If your cat is exhibiting signs of petting intolerance you can simply stop petting your cat to see if she simmers down, or you can end the cuddling session altogether. If allowed, your cat may simply leave your lap of her own accord, or you can toss a toy or a treat to direct the cat away. Alternatively, you can slowly stand up to encourage the cat to move along, but for your own safety, don’t pick her up to move her.
Your cat is “play biting” you
Playing is normal behavior for cats. Cats are predators and play is a way for cats to continually practice and fine tune their hunting skills.
But play biting is not appropriate behavior for cats. There is some evidence to suggest that cats who take play too far may do so because they missed out on some important lessons about play in kittenhood.
Cats who were weaned too early may have missed the chance to learn from their families about appropriate play.
In a perfect world, a kitten would get to stay with her mother and littermates for at least the first 12 weeks of her life. Many kittens are separated from their families much earlier than this and consequently miss the opportunity to learn from them everything they to know to be well-adjusted adult cats.
For example, kittens learn how to regulate the intensity of their bites from their mother and littermates. If they play too roughly, their mother will discipline them and their siblings will let them know. A kitten is supposed to learn how to keep his claws in and not bite for real. A kitten who is separated from his family too early won’t understand appropriate play behavior, and may become a biter as an adult.
A 2017 study published in Nature News showed that early weaning, when the kitten is only eight weeks or younger, increases the risk for aggression. Cats weaned after 14 weeks are much less likely to show aggressive behaviors as adults.
What to do if your cat or kitten is “play biting” you
This advice is probably too late for most cat owners, but avoid weaning too early if possible. If you have a mother cat who needs to be separated from her kittens before they are 12 weeks old, allow the kittens to remain with each other, or in pairs until they reach that magic 3-month age. If you have a single young kitten, consider getting a second kitten so that they can develop appropriate social behaviors together.
If you have a kitten, don’t ever allow play biting. Never play games with a kitten that involve chasing or biting your fingers and toes. This may be a cute behavior when the kitten is small, but will be considerably less cute when the kitten becomes an adult cat.
(Read this related post, "How to choose a kitten from a litter.")
If you have a play-biting adult cat, stop any rough handling or playing that gets him excited and encourages play biting. When you notice that your cat is becoming excited, return to calm petting, or use a toy, and not one of your body parts, for play. And be consistent. Don’t allow cute little nibbles on one body part but not another.
During play, use toys that direct a cat away from your body, like a fishing-rod toy. Or play toss-and-fetch with a cat who is interested in that kind of game.
If you have a cat who likes to ambush your ankles as you walk by the sofa, or attack your feet as you head up the stairs, carry toys with you. Throw them ahead so that the cat can focus on a fun chase, instead of on you.
Note that if the play has already gone too far and your cat is biting you, stop moving until the biting stops. Don’t suddenly pull your hand (or foot) away. The movement may stimulate your cat to bite down even harder.
Your cat is “love biting” you
Some cats seem to include gentle bites as part of their grooming process. They may lick, lick, lick your hand, face and head for a period of time, and then use their incisors to get a little deeper into a particular area. There are all kinds of reasons why cats lick you, but one of the most common is “allogrooming.” Allogrooming is a friendly behavior that cats perform with each other to reinforce the bond between them.
(For more information about allogrooming, read, "Why do cats groom or lick each other?")
I’ve noticed that some people call this kind of gentle bite a “love bite,” as if your cat is looking for a way to tell you that he loves you.
I hate to break it to you, but a cat that is gently nibbling mid-lick is probably not expressing her adoration for you. She is performing a behavior overall that reaffirms your connection, but “love bite” is probably not an accurate way to describe it.
What to do if your cat is "love biting" you
If you enjoy this behavior, and your cat is not a play biter, too, it’s perfectly fine to allow this kind of biting so long as it remains pleasant and gentle. If the biting devolves into something more aggressive, or seems to be more related to petting intolerance (see above), it may be time to put a permanent end to it.
Your cat is biting because she is fear-aggressive
Fear-aggressive bites probably don't fall under the category of "gentle" bites, but they're worth mentioning here anyway. There are some cats who become aggressive when they are afraid. Most cats will defend themselves when they are threatened, but some cats seem to become fearfully aggressive without any clear reason.
Fortunately, a cat who is fearful wears his frightened little heart on his kitty sleeve. You’ll know you have a fearful cat on your hands because your cat will hiss and spit, arch his back, fluff out his fur, swat, growl, try to escape, and yes, sometimes bite.
Unfortunately, fear-aggressive cats quickly learn that aggressive behaviors such as biting "works" to ward off whatever your cat is afraid of. It can be a self-reinforcing cycle.
What to do if your cat is biting because she is fear-aggressive
If the fear aggression reflects a sudden behavioral change, consult with your veterinarian. Make sure there is nothing medically wrong with your cat that would explain an abrupt behavior shift. Cats who are in pain may also bite. Read this post, "How do you know if your cat is sick?" for more information on the signs and symptoms of a sick or injured cat.
Try to avoid situations that cause defensive fear, such as cornering your cat. Make sure the cat always has an “out.” A fearful cat only becomes aggressive when he feels there is no escape hatch. Provide plenty of places for the fearful cat to hide in when he needs to get away from it all, and plenty of high perches from which he can safely view his world.
Don’t try to pet or soothe a frightened cat. Leave the room and let her calm down on her own so she doesn’t feel trapped.
Try to identify and remove the stressors in the cat’s life. If another cat in the household is causing stress, read this post about how to reintroduce the two cats. Make sure you have enough litter boxes, food and water bowls, and toys to go around. Look at the world from your cat’s point of view: is the dog having too much “fun” with the cat? Is your toddler getting too friendly? Your cat has very little control over his environment. Biting may be his last, best chance to exert some control over what happens to him.
What you should NEVER do when your cat bites
Do not, do not, do not ever physically correct your cat for biting. Do not hold down your cat, do not shake your cat, and do not hit your cat. Physical punishment is not only cruel, but it can make your cat anxious and fearful. Ultimately, you cat will start to avoid you.
Also, you should never physically punish your cat because it doesn’t work and, in fact, often makes the problem worse. Physical correction will actually make some cats become more aggressive, not less.
Do not yell at or scold your cat for biting you. Cats are not people: they don’t understand what you’re saying and they aren’t looking for your approval. At best, scolding accomplishes nothing; at worst it makes your cat uneasy around you.
Remember that biting is an extreme communication that cats may resort to when they feel they have no other options. Yes, biting is frustrating and it would be easy to lash out in the moment. But remember that you invested in a relationship with another living thing when you brought your cat home, and it’s up to you, as your cat’s guardian, to guard and nurture that relationship, not do it harm.
What you should do if a cat bite breaks the skin
Fortunately, most cat bites do not do any real damage, except to your ego.
Some cats will take a person’s hand into their mouth, but will not bite. Most cat bites are controlled bites, meaning the cat is trying to tell you something but has no intention going further than that.
But some bites do break the skin, and you should be concerned if you have a cat bite that does.
Note that bites that do not break the skin cannot become infected. Bites that scrape the skin have a very minimal risk of infection. A cut in the skin increases the risk of infection, but a puncture wound – which describes a serious cat bite – carries the highest risk of infection of all.
If you are bitten by any animal, your own cat included, you should get a tetanus shot if you haven’t had one in the last 10 years. Tetanus is a severe bacterial infection and some doctors may actually recommend a booster if the wound is very deep or dirty and you haven’t had a shot in the last five years. Don’t delay seeing the doctor: you need that booster within 48 hours of the injury.
Infected animal bites can lead to blood or bone infections. See your doctor right away if you have any signs of infection, including inflammation and pain that lasts for more than a day or two. 
Rabies is rare in the United States: just 1-3 cases per year. But if the cat who bit you is not yours and you don’t know the cat’s vaccination history, or if you’ve been bitten by a feral cat, you should be concerned about rabies. Rabies is a viral infection and usually fatal once you start experiencing symptoms. When in doubt, call your physician.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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 Medical News Today